Al-Qaeda threat retains its potency under pressure

The 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the US demonstrated that the Al-Qaeda organisation constituted a threat not only to US diplomats, forces, and allies overseas but also to the US mainland itself. Al-Qaeda and its political hosts in Afghanistan, the Taliban, were defeated in the US-led Operation ‘Enduring Freedom’ in 2001; yet Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and his political strategist Ayman al-Zawahiri remain at large.

The primary questions for the US and its allies in the Arabian Gulf are: how strong does Al-Qaeda remain; and how, if at all, have its objectives changed since it was ousted from Afghanistan?

To understand the current threat posed by Al-Qaeda it is necessary to understand the organisation’s recent history. After it was founded in Afghanistan in 1988, Al-Qaeda evolved from an opponent of pro-Western Arab governments and a threat to US interests in the Middle East to presenting itself as a global threat to US national security. Al-Qaeda is regarded by Western intelligence agencies - as a coalition of radical Islamist groups operating around the world. US officials estimate that Al-Qaeda has cells and associates in more than 70 countries; they add that as many as 20,000 militants that have received terrorist training.1

Before 11 September, Al-Qaeda was held responsible for a series of attacks against US interests dating back to 1992, when it bombed a hotel in Yemen where US forces were awaiting deployment to Somalia. Also, according to documents released by the US government in 1998, the group reportedly armed Somali factions in their fight against US forces there in October 1993. US analysts also believe that Al-Qaeda was responsible for a November 1995 bombing of a US military advisory facility in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that killed five Americans; the August 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; and the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in the harbour of Aden, Yemen.

Furthermore, much circumstantial evidence in the media about the February 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, particularly about key bombmaker Ramzi Ahmed Yusuf, suggests Al-Qaeda involvement in that attack. It is important to note, however, that the US government has not formally linked the attack with Al-Qaeda or bin Laden.

The report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (9/11 Commission), issued in July 2004, indicated that Al-Qaeda might have also been involved in the June 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in eastern Saudi Arabia; however, most investigators have attributed that attack to Saudi Shi’a terrorists working with Iranian agents.

Although the US had tried to exert pressure on the Taliban to extradite Al-Qaeda leaders from Afghanistan long before 11 September, those efforts were mostly diplomatic and did not succeed. The post-11 September UN-sanctioned, US-led war in Afghanistan replaced the Taliban regime with a pro-US moderate government. Approximately 17,000 US troops remain in Afghanistan, searching for remaining Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. About 75 per cent of the top 37 Al-Qaeda operatives or facilitators have been killed or captured, either in the Afghan war or in operations afterwards. These include:

  • Mohammed Atef, bin Laden’s brother-in-law and Al-Qaeda’s military commander in Afghanistan;
  • Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a key planner of the 11 September operations;
  • Abu Zubaydah, Al-Qaeda’s major recruiter and director of external operations;
  • Riduan Isamuddin, also known as Hanbali, the overall operations chief of Southeast Asian terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyya (JI) and the main liaison between JI and Al-Qaeda; and
  • Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a plotter of the 11 September attacks.
  • Since 11 September 2001, about 3,000 suspected Al-Qaeda members have been detained or arrested in about 90 countries.

    Not confined to military operations, the post-11 September struggle against Al-Qaeda is worldwide and multidimensional, involving diplomatic and financial actions as well as military and law enforcement operations. US officials say that the organisation has been significantly weakened. Others dispute that view, saying that Al-Qaeda and its affiliates are showing resilience; rather than being on the back foot, bin Laden and his fellow terrorists remain major threats that continue to conduct attacks and plan operations.2

    Some Arab governments, such as those of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, fear that many Al-Qaeda members have returned or seek to return to their countries of origin, the better to invigorate anti-regime and anti-Western Islamist activities there.3

    Recent developments appear to support the view of those who believe that Al-Qaeda and its affiliates remain active. It is likely, however, that operations are being conducted by individual leaders who are not necessarily in consistent contact with or reporting to bin Laden or al-Zawahiri. One such individual leader is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who reportedly is forging a formal alliance with Al-Qaeda that was virtually non-existent under the Saddam Hussein regime.

    Al-Zarqawi, whose real name is Ahmed Fadil al-Khalayleh, is a 38-year-old Jordanian who reportedly fought in the Afghanistan war against the Soviet occupation, fled the country after the 2001 war and went to northern Iraq where he ran a training camp, which was seized in the US-led Operation ‘Iraqi Freedom’ in 2003. Al-Zarqawi now leads an insurgent faction in Iraq composed of non-Iraqi Arabs, called Al-Tawhid w’al-Jihad (Unity and Holy Struggle). This faction is believed to have been responsible for numerous suicide bombings against Iraqi political and security figures; UN, US, and Iraqi installations; and kidnappings of civilian reconstruction workers. Al-Tawhid w’al-Jihad has significantly complicated US efforts to stabilise Iraq, although there are no firm indications that his movement is attempting to conduct terrorist operations on the US mainland.

    The starkest proof that Al-Qaeda continues to pose a major danger comes from its continuing attacks. These appear to be concentrated in the Islamic world, suggesting that Al-Qaeda and its affiliates might be experiencing difficulty in penetrating US homeland security post-11 September. This new focus in the Islamic world also indicates that Al-Qaeda might now be more of a problem for Middle Eastern regimes than for the US government.

    Some attacks have been thwarted in Europe since 11 September; however, the 11 March 2004 train bombings in Madrid served as evidence that Al-Qaeda remains able to operate in Europe. Attacks attributed to Al-Qaeda and its affiliates have taken place over the past six months in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia (despite the arrest of Hanbali) and, despite the confidence expressed by Egyptian officials that they have largely defeated al-Zawahiri/Al-Qaeda affiliates Al-Jihad and Al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, in Egypt (the hotel and backpacker resort bombings in October 2004). There is a growing body of evidence that the US-led war in Iraq has not helped to defeat Al-Qaeda and other radical Islamic movements but has had the opposite effect of swelling the ranks of Al-Qaeda and its ideological allies.


    There are no certain methods for completely defeating Al-Qaeda and its associates. Resolving the causes that spur recruitment to it - including the Arab-Israeli dispute, the US presence in Iraq and the overall lack of representative political development in the Islamic world - would probably be useful, although not necessarily decisive measures against Al-Qaeda.

    The recent history of the Iranian-backed Hizbullah organisation in Lebanon, long regarded as a terrorist group by the US, is an illuminating example. Hizbullah is in search of a mission and a cause after Israel’s withdrawal from South Lebanon in May 2000. As a consequence, it is now a far weaker organisation in Lebanon compared with when Israeli and Israeli-supported forces were in control of the ‘buffer zone’ in the south of the country. Deprived of a cause, a terrorist group withers away. Al-Qaeda would fare no differently if some of the root causes of conflict in the Middle East were addressed.

    The US is working closely with its counterparts around the world to track and freeze Al-Qaeda finances to deprive it of its financial resources. US officials say that about US$110 million in suspected terrorist assets has been frozen since 2001. However, when reports indicate that the entire 11 September plot might have cost as little as US$500,000, it is hard to see how tracking or freezing suspected terrorist assets or financial channels would seriously hinder Al-Qaeda’s ability to carry out operations.

    One of the main areas of debate among US counter-terrorist policy-makers is the degree to which they should focus more intently on capturing bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, who are believed to be hiding in South Waziristan or one of the other tribal areas of Pakistan. It is not even fully known whether the two men still exercise command over Al-Qaeda and its affiliates; there is evidence and strong opinions on both sides of that question. Whether or not they are operationally commanding Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, they (and particularly al-Zawahiri) have continued to issue taped messages threatening attacks on the US and countries and leaders allied with it.

    These messages, at the very least, give international financial markets and international leaders the impression that Al-Qaeda could still strike anywhere, at any time and particularly on a timetable calculated to affect Western elections. Indeed, bin Laden was shown taunting and threatening the US government and electorate in a supposedly new broadcast transmitted four days before the 3 November US presidential election. These messages - and the importance attached to them - are reason enough to believe that capturing bin Laden and al-Zawahiri should be considered a vital part of the effort against Al-Qaeda.

    Assuming that such a proposition is widely accepted, it is much more difficult to put into practice. The geographical and political difficulties associated with the perceived approximate locations of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri has been widely noted. It is certain, however, that the US military and US intelligence community have at their disposal greater capabilities with which to search for these figures than the equivalent Pakistani institutions.

    Pakistan has, in general, co-operated with US efforts to locate Al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistani cities and tribal areas, the more so after two failed assassination attempts against President Pervez Musharraf in December 2003. Although Pakistan’s commitment to denying sanctuary to elements of the Taliban has been questioned, its record of post-11 September co-operation against Al-Qaeda is noteworthy - the arrests of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, Abu Zubaydah and Ramzi bin al-Shibh being prime examples.

    However, the performance of the Pakistani military against Al-Qaeda forces in engagements around the town of Wana in March 2004 - and its inability to systematically and comprehensively search the vast tribal areas - have been less impressive. Many experts agree that a major, technology-intensive effort would be required to locate bin Laden and al-Zawahiri - an effort that the US is more capable of undertaking.

    Political analysts and others note that there could be a political backlash against Musharraf if Pakistan were to allow US forces and US agencies to operate in the tribal areas without restriction.

    However, because of their ability to inspire radical Islamic opponents of Musharraf, the continued presence of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri in tribal areas of Pakistan is at least as great a political and physical threat to the general as an unrestricted US effort to search for the pair. It is far more likely that Musharraf would ensure his political health if the two were captured than if they remained at large.

    Dr Kenneth Katzman is a senior analyst on Middle East issues and terrorism at the Congressional Research Service, Washington,

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