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How Do Experts View Al-Qaida's Strength in Wake of Saudi Attacks? - 2003-05-19

President Bush says the United States continues to dismantle al-Qaida, despite last week's terrorist attacks in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.

Those suicide car bomb attacks have caused many to wonder if al-Qaida is back as a major terrorist threat. But many terrorism experts believe al-Qaida never went away.

At a news conference with visiting Philippine President Gloria Arroyo, Mr. Bush insisted that despite some recent setbacks, the war on terrorism remains on track. He said, "And we are making progress. I mean, we are slowly but surely dismantling the al-Qaida operational network. But we have got a lot of work to do. Which means we have got to continue to work together to share information, cut off money, share intelligence and hunt these people down and get them before they get us."

Al-Qaida's alleged involvement in last week's Saudi attacks has prompted a lot of discussion in Washington and other world capitals that the terror network founded by Osama bin Laden is making a comeback.

But most terrorism experts believe al-Qaida has always remained a threat, even after the U.S. victory in Afghanistan. Noted author and terrorism expert Neil Livingstone, a recent guest on VOA's Encounter program, said, "Well, a lot of people are asking, 'Is al-Qaida back?' And I've said repeatedly, they've never gone away. This is an ongoing war; it is going to be a long war; it is going to have peaks and valleys, and it may go on for years, if not decades."

Experts say there is little doubt that al-Qaida has been weakened by the war on terrorism. Even though Osama bin Laden apparently remains at large, some of the other top leaders have been either captured or killed, and al-Qaida operatives have been chased out of what was their home base in Afghanistan.

But U.S. officials acknowledge that that does not mean al-Qaida is impotent. Republican Pat Roberts from the state of Kansas is chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said on the CBS program, Face the Nation that, "What you now have is third and fourth-level terrorists organized in sort of a beehive or anthill kind of operation here, where, if you take out the beehive or anthill, you have other pockets. It is like a virus. And the irony is that they have been reduced to attacking Muslims, their own people, in sacred Islamic lands," he said.

Some opposition Democrats, especially those running for president, contend that the Bush administration's recent focus on Iraq has proven to be a distraction from the war on terrorism.

Massachusetts Senator John Kerry is one of nine Democrats seeking his party's presidential nomination, also interviewed on Face the Nation, said, "What has happened is, we broke the beehive, but we didn't kill the bees, and we certainly didn't kill the Queen bee."

Most terrorism experts agree that, although al-Qaida has taken some serious hits in the war on terrorism, it has also shown some resilience.

Former CIA Director James Woolsey talked about al-Qaida's financing on NBC's Today program in which he said, "The thing about al-Qaida is that they are so wealthy. They can resuscitate themselves even after getting a knock-down, because they draw on the wealth of wealthy Saudi families and others. They have hundreds-of-millions to billions of dollars, and will, as long as the system operates the way it does now," he said.

Experts and intelligence officials also concede that al-Qaida has demonstrated some structural flexibility, as well. Ali al-Ahmed is president of the Saudi Institute, an organization that promotes political reform in Saudi Arabia, spoke on VOA's Encounter program, saying, "The Western perception of an organization does not apply to al-Qaida, because al-Qaida is not really an organization. It is more of a phenomenon, a phenomenon that supports it by organizations, religious leaders and organizations scattered across the globe. But mainly it is concentrated in Saudi Arabia."

The Saudi government has appeared reluctant to tackle some of these issues in the past. But Adel al-Jubeir, a foreign policy adviser to the Saudi Crown Prince, said last week's attacks have convinced the Saudi government to take action. "We need to eliminate the environment in which they can recruit our young people. We need to create an environment that is conducive to immunizing our population from them. We will have to look seriously at every facet of our culture and our society, in order to make sure that we can deal with this threat," he said.

U.S. officials say that, so far, the Saudis are fully cooperating with the probe into the Riyadh attacks.

As for the future, terrorism experts warn that al-Qaida's reach could still include the United States.

Retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Randy Larsen, director of the Anser Institute on Homeland Security, spoke on CBS television saying, "They trained over 20,000 terrorists in Afghanistan, al-Qaida did, and some reports say there are as many as 2,000 inside the United States right now. They are here, and that is why this war is going to go on for sometime."

Former CIA Director James Woolsey is convinced that the al-Qaida is planning a major attack on the U.S. mainland. He said, "I think they will try to have their next operation in the United States be something big, something dramatic. I hope they will not be able to get access to any sort of weapons of mass destruction, such as biological weapons, or a dirty bomb. But they will try to do something within a year or so, I would imagine, that is rather dramatic here."

Many experts echo the prediction of author Neil Livingstone, who says al-Qaida could remain a threat for some time to come, and that the war on terrorism is likely to go on for years, if not decades.