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Despite War on Terrorism Successes, al-Qaida Still Remains a Lethal Force - 2003-05-22

In March, Pakistani and American intelligence agents captured a top al-Qaida operations chief in Pakistan. That arrest led US investigators to contact French and Spanish authorities about al-Qaida connections to a suicide bomb attack a year earlier on a Tunisian synagogue. Spanish police then arrested al-Qaida operatives in Valencia, Spain. And German agents supplied another clue when they revealed that they had intercepted a coded phone call from the would-be Tunisian suicide bomber.

Investigative work by the nations ended up implicating al-Qaida in the Tunisian attack. That kind of cooperation, some analysts say, has helped the United States and its allies in the war on terrorism capture about 100 top al-Qaida operatives and arrest or kill a core group of the network's senior leaders.

William Rosenau, an Associate Political Scientist at the Rand Corporation in Washington, says that intelligence sharing as well as dismantlement of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan may have prevented an even greater catastrophe than September eleventh. "The fact that we haven't witnessed the kinds of events we have seen previously particularly involving chemical, biological and nuclear weapons is a real achievement. Certainly, the international cooperation has been critical. I think the biggest overall achievement would be the ending of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. That was, without a doubt, the most important, more important than arresting any one individual. Being able to deprive the terrorists of a huge training area and being able to deprive them of a magnet for recruitment has been a singular achievement."

But other analysts say that, despite successes in the war on terrorism, al-Qaida's network is still very much alive. In response to the crackdown by the United States and its allies, the group has decentralized and appears to be working closer to home in the Middle East to foment destruction.

Ahmed Rashid is an Islamabad-based journalist who has written books on the Taliban and militant Islam. He says that while al-Qaida has been dealt a serious blow, "many who scattered after the invasion of Afghanistan two years ago are now reconstituting around the world. But I think the key to this issue is that these individual al-Qaida -- 2nd ranked, 3rd ranked leaders -- have linked up with local groups. We saw in Morocco what happened last week. This was a local Moroccan group. All the foot soldiers and suicide bombers were Moroccan. And we are likely to see this in other places in the Middle East where local extremist groups will now be getting money, advice and logistical support to carry out their own operations."

In combating an enemy which works in the shadows and thrives on stirring up anti-Americanism, journalist Rashid notes that the United States may have lost some vital support by deposing Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. "I think in the post-Iraq war scenario there is going to be a lot of reluctance from intelligence agents in the field, especially in Muslim countries, to go ahead and carry out the kinds of measures the United States wants. Pakistan has been a key ally of the United States, but there is a lot of anger against the Americans for what has been happening in Afghanistan and Iraq. And there is a lot of anger in the military and intelligence agencies, which could be translated into a kind of hands-off for the time being."

Other analysts contend that while the preemptive attack on Iraq may have been unpopular with some countries, they, nevertheless, continue to cooperate in the US-led war on terrorism. Their need to cooperate has been underscored by the recent attacks in Morocco and Saudi Arabia, says William Rosenau of the Rand Corporation. "One of the reasons these countries cooperate with each other and the United States is because they are worried about terrorists within their own borders," he says. "They recognize organizations like al-Qaida as ultimately threatening to them. The Pakistanis are not doing this out of the goodness of their own heart. Iraq may have made it more difficult to cooperate with us openly, but my guess is that the cooperation will continue. They'll just do it more quietly in deference to public opinion."

So how can the United States refine its mission to combat terrorism? Some analysts say the effort will need to emphasize more than intelligence sharing and the use of military force.

In countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, where US military might has unseated authoritarian governments, the urgent task, say some analysts, is to prove that the new governments will be better. Ahmed Rashid says America should rely more on the United Nations with its experience at helping countries rebuild themselves. "The most important facet of the war on terrorism is the whole issue of reconstruction and nation building. The US and British strategy in Afghanistan is failing rapidly," Mr. Rashid says. "We are seeing a massive deterioration in law and order. A lot of political programs outlined by the UN -- disarmament, demobilization, bringing about a new constitution -- could be paralyzed in the next few weeks because of the law and order situation. This is what we are seeing in Iraq today. What is needed is a much more comprehensive strategy by the UN, and the UN would do a much better job if it was given the tools to do it, if it was given agreement by the big powers to do it."

As the United States and its allies carry forward the war on terrorism and rebuild countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, they would do well to keep in mind a unique characteristic of the jihadist movement, says David Martin Jones, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Tasmania in Australia.

Dr. Jones says that members of these movements have integrated into open societies and are using technologically advanced Western tools, such as computerization, communications and weapons, against Western countries and their allies. Yet they ignore the values of the Western societies that produced these tools.

So the key question for Dr. Jones is: will Western countries be able to combat violent offshoots of Islam without becoming increasingly less tolerant and less open societies?

"Our secular values, and the whole idea of the secular capacity for a liberal democracy to give us the capacity to pursue life, liberty and happiness, is threatened fundamentally by the idea that people who we would assume would find the attractions of the West so compelling would become more secularized in their belief systems," says Dr. Jones. "But this is not happening, and this present us with a serious challenge to our own deepest held beliefs in the powers of a liberal democratic modernity."

Analysts agree that it will take a multi-pronged effort over a long time period to prosecute the war on terrorism successfully. So far, military means and intelligence-sharing efforts have produced significant results. But the determination and resourcefulness of al-Qaida and its affiliated groupings were demonstrated once again with the recent spate of terrorist attacks. And much about the group's operations and ideology remains a mystery.