Al-Qaeda: Changing Shape Again?

Al-Qaeda Al Sulbah (The Solid Base) is the first multinational terrorist group of the twenty-first century. Between pre-modern Afghanistan and postmodern continental United States via Europe and Asia, Al-Qaeda has built a state-of-the-art terrorist network for moving funds, goods and personnel. In addition to its core force of 3000 members, Al-Qaeda has established linkages with over two dozen Islamist groups. It is the painstaking, steadfast construction of this network over many years that enabled Al-Qaeda to mount the 11 September attacks.


Al-Qaeda's training infrastructure has suffered gravely as a result of US intervention in Afghanistan since October 2001. However, Al-Qaeda began decentralizing the organization, opening new facilities to train recruits in many regional theatres, from Mindanao in the Philippines to the Pankishi Valley in Georgia, much before 11 September. In forming the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and the Crusaders in 1998, Al-Qaeda networked with - and in some cases co-opted - groups from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the Far East to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in Central Asia and the Salafist Group for Combat in North Africa. Telephone intercepts indicated that in early 1999, at the request of Al-Qaeda's head of external operations, Abu Zubaida, the MILF opened special camps for training foreign recruits, including Camp Hodeibia, Palestine, and the Abu Bakar complex in the Philippines. When the Philippines military overran the Abu Bakar complex, another Al-Qaeda associate - Lashkar Jundullah - established a facility in Poso, Sulawesi, Indonesia. Immediately after the 1998 East Africa attacks when Pakistan started to arrest Al-Qaeda recruits on transit to and from Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda established similar facilities in Algeria and Chechnya. Although the loss of Afghanistan is a massive blow to Al-Qaeda's capability, the support it enjoys in Pakistan's tribal areas, as well as the pre-11 September decentralization, is likely to ensure its survival.

Losing and Learning

After the 1998 East Africa bombings, a land suicide attack on US diplomatic targets, the US security community strengthened the security of all US missions overseas. However, there was no further vehicle-borne suicide attack. Instead of another land suicide operation, Al-Qaeda mounted a sea-borne suicide operation. After USS Cole, the US security community, invested in preventing another land or maritime attack by strengthening perimeter security. Yet Al-Qaeda evaded security measures and struck America's most outstanding landmarks from the sky. Thereafter, Al-Qaeda planned to strike the US once more with a radiological dispersal device, an operation that was disrupted at the reconnaissance stage. In keeping with Al-Qaeda's losing and learning doctrine, it is likely to attempt to destroy the third target, the US Congress, in the future.

Although Al-Qaeda has lost its key leaders, such as its military commander Mohammad Atef (alias Abu Hafs), Al-Qaeda's penultimate leadership, which provides strategic and tactical direction, is still intact. As long as the leadership of a group survives, the group itself will survive. Furthermore, the Islamist milieu in Muslim territorial and migrant communities that provides the bulk of the recruits, finance and other forms of support is still unharmed. The robust Islamist ideology of Al-Qaeda, which has gone unchallenged, is ensuring the survival of the group. Al-Qaeda is replenishing its human losses (killed, captured, arrested) and material wastage (weapons and other supplies) both inside and outside Afghanistan. As a result, Al-Qaeda's global network - with members drawn from forty-six countries and active in ninety-eight countries - is still functional, including operatives in Europe and the UK. Al-Qaeda operational cells have been disrupted planning and preparing for attacks in France, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain and in the United Kingdom; but Al-Qaeda support cells, which disseminate propaganda, raise funds, recruit, procure supplies and mount surveillance on intended targets, are still active. Its collaborators, supporters and sympathizers are filling the leadership vacuum created by the first wave of arrests immediately after 11 September. The post-11 September Al-Qaeda cell is more clandestine, compact and self-contained, thus harder to detect and disrupt.

Due to the difficulty of operating in the post-11 September environment, Al-Qaeda has delegated many of its responsibilities to other Islamist movements (parties and groups) previously operating under the Al-Qaeda-led umbrella. In a number of theatres, Al-Qaeda is also operating through various groups that it previously shared training, financial and operational infrastructure with in Afghanistan. This phenomenon is most visible in Pakistan where seven attacks by Al-Qaeda and its associated groups have occurred to date. The Taliban-Al-Qaeda strategy is to install a regime that is friendly, or at least neutral, to the Islamists in Pakistan. They believe that the future survival of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban along the Afghanistan- Pakistan border will depend on their ability to generate sustained support from Pakistan. One attempt to assassinate President Musharaf failed, but they are likely to target him repeatedly until he is killed or removed from office. Al-Qaeda has also mounted at least two clandestine operations to assassinate President Hamid Karzai or cabinet ministers.

Priority Targets

The United States, the 'head of the poisonous snake', remains the principal target of Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda's intent was reflected when Osama bin Laden said in an interview with Al-Jazeera's Kabul correspondent Tayseer Allouni on 21 October 2001: 'The battle has moved to inside America. We will continue this battle, God permitting, until victory or until we meet God.' Until the US intelligence agencies infiltrate terrorist groups, a task that cannot be accomplished in the short term (1-2 years), it is reasonable to assume that the US is as vulnerable as it was before 11 September. The governments that assist the US in its campaign in Afghanistan, as well as the governments that have disrupted Al-Qaeda cells on their soil, have also earned the wrath of Al-Qaeda. For instance, after the Singaporean government disrupted cells of Jamaayah Islamiyah, Al-Qaeda's Southeast Asian arm operating in Singapore, the leadership (relocated in Indonesia) have vowed to crash a plane on to the Changi international airport in Singapore. Similarly, in retaliation for Pakistan's support for the United States, several Islamist groups in Pakistan are attacking soft targets nationwide. Islamist terrorists killed four Pakistanis at a Christian school for the children of foreign aid workers in the Murree Hills on 5 August 2002 and three others in the church of a Christian hospital in Taxila four days later.

Countries friendly to the United States have been targeted. Post-11 September Al-Qaeda attempted but failed to destroy US, UK, Australian and Israeli diplomatic missions; attack a US warship off Singapore and US and British warships in the Straits of Gibraltar; and poison the water supply to the US embassy in Rome. Al-Qaeda also attempted to bomb the US embassy and American cultural centre in Paris and attack the US base in Sarajevo. An Al-Qaeda member fired a surface to air missile at a US warplane taking off from the Prince Sultan airbase in Saudi Arabia in December 2001. To encourage Islamists to strike Jewish targets, Nizar Seif Eddin al-Tunisi (meaning Sword of the Faith, the Tunisian) alias Nizar Nouar, rammed a vehicle carrying liquid petroleum gas into Ghiriba Synagogue, Africa's oldest Synagogue, killing fourteen German tourists, and five Tunisians, on 11 April 2002 and Al-Qaeda's front, The Islamic Army for the Liberation of the Holy Sites, claimed responsibility for the attack. This was subsequently confirmed by Azeem Al Muhajir, an Al-Qaeda military commander.

Changing Shape

The threat picture clearly shows that Al-Qaeda is constrained from launching other large-scale attacks such as 11 September, but is still able to conduct small- and medium-scale attacks. With unprecedented security, intelligence and law enforcement cooperation and heightened public alertness, Al-Qaeda appears unable to engage in extensive and long-range planning and preparation across more than one country - a pre-requisite for conducting co-ordinated simultaneous attacks. Nonetheless, once Al-Qaeda identifies the gaping holes in the post-11 September security architecture, its super cells are likely to plan, prepare and execute another mass casualty attack. For the time being, due to the limitations of mounting another large-scale operation, Al-Qaeda's super cells are considering a range of other options, from 'going to sleep' or hibernating, to taking opportunity targets or tasking other groups. Of the dozen medium- and small-scale attacks conducted by Al-Qaeda and its associate groups against US, Allied and Coalition targets worldwide, only a fraction have been successful.

Al-Qaeda has learnt that they have failed due to tighter international security, especially within the United States, and hurried Al-Qaeda planning. Nonetheless, Al-Qaeda's ideology ensures that, like a wounded animal, the group will strike back. As a result of countermeasures, the threat is shifting to include a wider range of targets as well as a change in the modus operandi. Strategic changes in the Taliban-Al-Qaeda power configuration include:

  • First, Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban and the former head of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, has assumed the principal responsibility to fight the US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. In the fight, Osama bin Laden himself has pledged loyalty and allegiance to his leadership. As Osama went into hiding, as the 'leader of the Faithful', Mullah Omar spearheaded re-organization of the post-11 September Taliban, re-establishing communication with the scattered units and regrouping them along secure areas of the 1520-mile long Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Their goal is to consolidate the strength of the Taliban by deepening their strategic influence in Afghanistan and Pakistan and preparing for a campaign of protracted guerrilla warfare. To rebuild support, the Taliban is disseminating propaganda and indoctrinating the Afghan people either directly or through sympathizers scattered throughout Afghanistan.
  • Second, the space of one whole year has enabled the Taliban and Al-Qaeda to replace losses in the rank and file by promoting middle level and junior leaders as well as by fresh recruitment. To compensate for the total loss of Pakistani state support to the Taliban, Mullah Omar has established Lashkar-e-Omar - a covert network of support organizations in Pakistan to sustain a low intensity campaign in Afghanistan and environs. By instigating its associate groups in Kashmir, Harakat-ul Mujahidin and Jayash-e-Mohommad, to intensify violence in Kashmir, the Taliban forced Pakistan to re-deploy its troops on the Afghan border to the 1500-mile long India- Pakistan border. With the increase in the porousness of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Taliban/Al-Qaeda has re-established its lines of communication, supplies and recruits into Pakistan. Both Taliban and Al-Qaeda as well as other associate groups are harnessing the Islamist milieu in Pakistan and overseas to ensure a revival in the support (encouragement, funds, supplies) necessary for survival and sustenance. Conflicts of international neglect where Muslims are suffering - Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya, Maluku, Mindanao, Algeria and others - are ensuring continuity of support. Since the first three months of confrontation, there have been no indications of mass desertions from Taliban or Al-Qaeda, which suggests a high state of morale within the rank and file.
  • Third, Al-Qaeda's deputy leader, Dr Ayman Al- Zawahiri, is playing a more substantial role in Al-Qaeda support and operational activities both inside and outside Afghanistan. To topple Karzai in Afghanistan and Musharaf in Pakistan, Al-Qaeda has established networks of collaborators, supporters and sympathizers in both countries. To co-ordinate and conduct operations Al-Qaeda is seeking to re-establish communication with its associate groups and command cells respectively. To revive support Al-Qaeda is re-establishing linkages with its affiliate NGOs and other charities overseas. The group is also considering revisiting both the maritime and Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) options it has considered over the years. For instance, Bin Laden paid $1.5 million to a Sudanese military officer to purchase a Uranium canister from South Africa. Al-Qaeda was duped when the group was sold an externally radiated canister. Although suicide terrorism coupled with conventional attacks have proved to be the most effective, Al-Qaeda and its associated groups are likely to go down the road of chemical, biological and radiological terrorism.

As the 'spearhead of Islam' and the 'pioneering vanguard of the Islamic movements', Al-Qa'ida continues to inspire a wider constituency to take up the fight against the 'enemies of Islam' by example, word of mouth and over 1000 sites on the World Wide Web.

Rohan Kumar Gunartna is Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPU), St Andrews University

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