An expert on global terrorism says there are now up to 40 groups around the world trying to imitate al-Qaida and virtually all of them are intent on attacking the United States and its allies. Rohan Gunaratna spoke to Middle East specialists and journalists in Washington.
Rohan Gunaratna is the head of terrorist research at the Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore and a senior fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Gunaratna has studied terrorism for two decades and is the author of the best-selling book, Inside al-Qaida: Global Network of Terror.
The native of Sri Lanka has interviewed more than 200 terrorists in dozens of countries and he says there are now terror groups around the world that are trying to act like al-Qaida.
"Al-Qaida has morphed from a group into a movement," he said. "Today, in place of al-Qaida, we have 30 to 40 different groups from Asia, Africa and the Middle East seeking to emulate al-Qaida. Al-Qaida has influenced these groups operationally and ideologically."
Gunaratna says because these organizations are scattered, security and intelligence services must monitor and respond to multiple threats as the terror groups employ classic al-Qaida tactics such as suicide bombings and multi-target attacks.
He says the threat of terrorism has increased significantly since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
"We have seen many of these local jihad groups that traditionally believed in local jihads, are now believing in the global jihad," he said. "Today they are not only fighting their local governments and non-Muslim populations, but also the United States, its allies and its friends. This is the single biggest development we have seen in the international terrorism landscape in the past four years."
Gunaratna says after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, most al-Qaida members fled to Pakistan and Iran.
He says about 100 al-Qaida members and their families, including four sons and two wives of Osama bin Laden, are currently in Iran.
Gunaratna says the porous nature of many borders in the Middle East, and a common cause, has encouraged terrorist groups to cooperate with each other.
"Today we are seeing a greater exchange of personnel, a greater exchange of technologies and ideas across these groups," he added. "Today it really does not matter whether you are al-Qaida, or whether you belong to any other organization. The main interest is that you believe in the global jihad and this is largely a post-Iraq invasion development."
Gunaratna says al-Qaida's main objective remains the same. It is to create its own Islamic states wherever Muslims live throughout the world.