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Frontline: Al Qaeda's New Front

Neil Docherty
Wednesday, January 26, 2005; 11:00 AM

Mosques burn and a filmmaker is murdered in a culture clash between Muslims and Christians in the Netherlands. A series of bombs tear apart four commuter trains in Madrid, killing 191 people and wounding more than 1,400. Al Qaeda terrorist cells are uncovered in the U.K., Germany, Italy, and Spain. Frontline investigates the new front in the war on terror: Europe. Now home to 20 million Muslims -- which some call "Eurabia" -- the continent is a challenge to intelligence services on both sides of the Atlantic, exacerbated by political divisions over the Iraq war.

Producer Neil Docherty was online Wednesday, Jan. 26, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss "Al Qaeda's New Front."

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Oak Park, Mich.: The documentary makes clear that for the Islamic terrorist the end goal is a return of Islamic domination in the world. Given that for them it is a religious war, and Americans tend to think as secularists, how can America win this war if we have the wrong mindset about the nature of the conflict?

Neil Docherty: The argument put forward by many in Europe and Scheuer -- ex cia--is we need to address our policies in the west so that it seems we are not targetting Islamic countries for oil, and playing fair in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. These measure it is argued would disarm the jihadi recruiters


Glenmont, Md.: From the Islamic Web sites I've seen, Muslims are as much anti-Europe as they are anti-USA and Europe, as a whole, either ignores this issue or blames the Americans. Am I wrong?

Neil Docherty: I think from our reporting there there seems to be a growing sensitivity that Muslims must be better integrated into European society. And there is a growing realization -- post Madrid and Istanbul bombings that Europe is now a target.


Washington, D.C.: For the U.S. and the U.K. to claim that a single, unitary "al Qaeda" exists is like the FBI claiming that protestors against factory farming are all part of a single, unitary "Animal Liberation Front." It's literally nonsense.

al Qaeda, in Saudi Arabic, translates most closely to "the gang." The term was first used by the U.S. Government -- it is not used in a single intelligence report by the Al Qaeda members themselves. What the US calls Al Qaeda is, from all reliable analyses, an almost non-organized collection of many dozens of cells, not reporting to the same leadership, not pursuing the same specific goals, not deploying the same technical methods, and not in communication with each other -- even indirectly.

The US used the "al Qaeda" phrase so as to create the impression of a single, dangerous adversary, largely to secure the re-election of Bush.

Please make the facts clear.

Neil Docherty: Certainly most of the counter-terrorism officials we spoke with agree that Al Qaeda has turned into more of a social movement than an hierarchical organization. Bin Laden is seen as more inspiration than organizational chief.


Chicago, Ill.: How do these Islamist Jihadists justify committing violence against the very people and democracies that allow them the freedom to worship and move from place to place, when their own countries of origin and their own "countrymen" do not provide them the same privileges? What are the moderate, informed Islamists doing to set these extremists straight on the true meaning of the Quran? What kind of reception did your correspondent receive from the Islamists Jihadists he was able to interview?

Neil Docherty: There is thinking in these circles that the jihadists have left there land only to gain strength to return and liberate their own countries--much as the prophet did when he had to flee Mecca--and gathered his forces in Medina for a successful return. So there is a way of interpreting the Koran to justify there stay in European countries. But the jihadists often see themselves as sojourners and not citizens of these countries.

The jihadists we interviewed were stern, people of conviction, but perfectly civil.


Washington, D.C.: While I found this Frontline fascinating and extremely well-done (like all the other Frontlines), I was extremely disturbed by the audio footage of Nicholas Berg being beheaded. I understand that it was important to the piece to hear the excitement with which the men responded to the broadcast, but, having worked in Iraq recently and taken great pains to avoid broadcasts like this one, I found the audio horrific. Between you and me, I actually threw up afterward.

I missed the first 15 minutes, though. Did you give a warning that the show would contain disturbing footage?

Neil Docherty: I am sorry to hear how disturbed you were. there was a warning at the front of the film. The point of playing the audio was to reveal the fervour of the recruiter, but also his response to the young man he was recruiting. He says:
"isn't this a sin?" and Rabei responds that it is never a sin if done for the cause.

These things are judgement calls and our aim was to accurately reflect the scale and depth of what Europeans are facing.


New York, N.Y.: I feel powerless against this threat and as an American, I am increasingly distressed at the policies of our government that continue to fuel this fundamentalism. It is distressing to hear respected experts in Europe compare Bush's agenda against terrorism as antiquated and foolish. I completely agree and I am wondering where are all the politicians (Democrats) in all this? Why is no one in Washington screaming out loud and trying to change the course of our government actions? Is there anything that can be done??

Neil Docherty: Sorry--I don't feel competent to answer this


Las Vegas, Nev.: Do most western countries considder the war on terror to be a war against an attempt by a growing minority (growing since 1922?) to restore the Islamic caliphate; and if so why don't the western or "progressive thinking" countries publicize the information and work closer with the moderate Muslim populations to work within themselves to instruct against, and weed out the extreemist that are bent on world domination?

Neil Docherty: I think that is the route now favoured by Europeans and I think there is a growing realization that they have not done well by their Muslim immigrants.


Atlanta, Ga.: What we are seeing in Europe and the world is clearly the clash between relegions and the laws. Do you believe there is a way to solve this issue if one sees local laws preventing him/her performing his/her duties obligations to god they beleve in.

Neil Docherty: I think the issue of religious adherence versus state laws is going to be increasingly raised. Personally I think we have to watch for any ersoion of the separation of church and state. In France the ban on the hijab was partly because the French felt they had to draw that line and that had they given way the next step would have been separate schools for girls and boys, according to Gilles Kepel


Suitland, Md.: It would seem as though formation of more organized terrorist cells, within the borders of the European Union, would be more easily achieved than in the U.S. Many EU countries do not have uniform anti-terrorist laws and [official] discrimination against Muslims in general seems "toned-down." Do you believe that there will be future attacks in Europe or just a greater al Qaeda presence (for planning purposes)? I would think that by attacking Europe, al Qaeda would push European governments and the EU to a more polarized anti-terrorist position, perhaps more in line with the U.S.

Neil Docherty: I think this is an excellent point. The Europeans certainly fear another attack and it looks like they have thwarted many. This may be because Al Qaeda has metastised and there is little control from the top. This allows for reckless acts.
Scheuer--ex cia--believes that Bin Laden's strategy is for nuisance operations with small -scale casualties just to keep Europeans annoyed at the US, and that he would not approve of a large9/11 attack for the reasons you state. In that scenario Madrid was likely a freelance operation. And I don't think we yet know the answer to this.


Indianapolis, Ind.: Given that some European officials interviewed in the show thought that the U.S. had the wrong conception, outlook on how to fight the "war" -- what recommendations did they have? Did they suggest a policy change? Other suggestions?

Neil Docherty: One of the big concerns in Europe is the Israel-palestinian conflict. There is much more sympathy in Eruope for the Palestinians and they would like to see the US use its muscle to get a settlement. That they believe would greatly disarm the jihaist recruiters.


Munich, Germany: Great website.

Although I'm writing from the birthplace of Arab Terrorism -- Munich Olympics, 1972 -- it's sometimes difficult to see the forest for the trees in the daily media. The ritual slaying of Theo van Gogh appeared in the German press again on the weekend. The article describes the more martialistic atmosphere in Amsterdam after the slaying..

In Germany, the story of the rendition -- abduction, torture and imprisonment -- of a Lebanese born German citizen, and interrogation by Americans (they weren't from the boy scouts) is receiving more attention. It appears to have been a case of mistaken identity.

I can't really say that such publicity helps the war on terror. Surely if a man can be covertly abducted and tortured, he can be covertly helped afterwards but those who feel that they've made an honest mistake.

Your comments?

Neil Docherty: I sympathize with your confusion. it would be a foolish person who would try and predict what is going to happen. I agree the rendition question raises profound issues about how we deal with the war on terror and they need to be addressed openly for us to come to some acceptable solution that doesn't completely devalue our democratic principles


St. Petersburg, Fla.: I have read Sayyid Qutb -- the Egyptian ideologue whose work inspires much of the Salfist movement. There is nothing territorial about his concerns. He makes it quite plain that the struggle is not about territory it is about God's sovereignty on earth. Do you think the territorial concerns: Palestine, Chechnia, Kashmnir are rhetoric used to recruit or essential grievances to the jihadist movement?

Neil Docherty: They are certainly used as a recuitment tool--and oppotunistically I am sure--but they do have resonance in the general Muslim population. There is a growing concern among moderate Muslims that they are being attacked from all quarters, and hence the revivalism of Qutb's thinking.


Stafford, Va.: Do you think that the Europeans, having had more experience at battling terrorists, are turning a blind eye to the problems in their own backyard and instead leaving all the work to the Americans in order not to "upset" the Islamists and target their own citizens? Immigration in Europe is much stricter than in the USA and for the most part, the officials usually know who is in their country and what they are doing there.

Neil Docherty: I think the europeans are sensitive to their immigrant communties--and particulalry now post 9/11 and Madrid. But years of neglect are hard to redress, particulalry in highly-charged times, where Muslims are appalled at the daily news from the Middle East


Long Beach, Calif.: How does Al Qaeda's command and control compare to the CIA backed Mujahadeen of the late 1970's? Did we do a better job than Osama?

Neil Docherty: Sorry can't really make a judgement on that


Washington, D.C.: Producer Docherty, I watched the special and by the way I found it to be very informative. I had a quick question if you didn't mind... according to what you know and have researched... how entrenched is the Takfuri ideology in America and the rest of the world? And how can we spot an enemy who is often good at playing a game of "smoke and mirrors?" Thank you for your time and help. I look foward to more specials on Frontline.

Neil Docherty: Thank you for you comments. The worry with the Takfirisand those who adopt some of their tactics, is, of course, that they are hard to detect. The 9/11 conspirators where an example.
The French certaqinly see this as a growing problem, and it would seem obvious, with the mounting arrests in Europe that the terrorists are going to become even more skilled at hiding in the open


Cairo, Egypt: There seems to be a lot of discussion and study on the idealogical factors involoved in terrorist attacks. Sociological information (ie, why such ideaology gets a chance to be popularized) has not been discussed much in my experience. Have you run into any such research or officials who have talked about this area, what conditions aid this ideaology? If so, could you give us a quick summary of those views/research.

Neil Docherty: I am not sure too much serious work has been done on this. the picture is confused. Many of the terrorists--captured or accused--seem to come from middle-class backgrounds. They are better-educated than their peers in there own country. Often they are in secular professions--architecture, engineering etc and so are not in the early stages well-versed inthe Koran.

The conventional view is they go abroad to study and gravitate to the mosque to meet fellow Muslims--and then are recruited.

Marc Sagemen, a former CIA agent in Afghanistan, and now a forensic Psychiatris, has written a book of terror networks whichis worth reading


Washington, D.C.: How many radical Muslems have been turned in by moderate Muslems? Is thre really a difference between those who commit the acts of terrorism and those in the community who remain quiet?

Neil Docherty: Sorry don't feel competent to answer this


Los Angeles, Calif.: If the American M/I complex could square off with the Chinese to a greater extent, which is impossible today, as China is buying $2 billion in Treasury Notes per WEEK, would we have a more sane view of the real dangers of Muslim terror? In other words, is al Qaeda the enemy needed for our outrageous military spending?

Neil Docherty: Interesting point--but I don't feel competent to answer this.


Norfolk, Va.: Mr. Docherty, thank you for a powerful and troubling program. It brings up an underlying question I've had for years: Is it possible that much of Islam, simply put, is not compatible with Western society in the 21st century?

Neil Docherty: i DON'T CLAIM SUFFICIENT EXPERTISE TO do justice to this question. I think, though, we have to bear in mind that jihadists among the Muslim communities in Europe are estimated at less than one per cent. so that leaves a lot of people trying to make their way in the demoractic world.
Also many of them would argue that the West has done little to help spread demorcary in their homelands, where we have been happy to do deals with dictators for oil or geo-political expediency


Denver, Colo.: After living in Spain for almost 10 years, I found that, years ago, Islamic militant groups were very organized and operative. Did you delve into this in your investigations? Did you know about the existence of GIA cells in northeastern Spain in the mid-90's?

Neil Docherty: Spanish authorities would admit, I think, that they were more focussed on the Basque liberation movement ETA than on Islamic terror, and they are still playing catch-up in terms of the number of Arab speakers they have within their forces


Quebec, Canada: Since it is obvious that Europe has a serious problem with Islamic terrorists, why are so many Europeans opposed to the U.S. war on terrorism? It would appear that Europe still favors the appeasement approach, as they did with the Nazis. Some people never learn from history.

Neil Docherty: In brief many Europeans feel the war in Iraq is likely to make Europe more dangerous, partly because it serves as a recruitment tool for jihadists,and for fear that if Iraq develos further then galvanized jihadis will return to Europe with renewed status and fervour. Also Mike Scheuer's view (ex had of CIA Bin Laden desk) is shared by many--viz: that Iraq was a mistake and a gift to Bin Laden. There was little opposisiont within Europe to the invasion of Afghanistan


Kansas City: Excellent program.

My question: whether in Europe or the U.S., what can individuals do to prepare themselves, mentally and physically, in the face of this volatile, "mutating" terrorist threat? I hate to be fatalistitic, nor do I want to rely on the government as an all-knowing guide in a chaotic aftermath. And, importantly, how do we prepare our children for this world of terrorist uncertainty -- not to be fearful and hence more rigid, but resilient? When I was a teenager 30 years ago, how I looked forward to traveling abroad, to exploring the world. I still do, and want my three young children under 12 to have the same optimistic outlook. But I have a greater unease, now. How do I equip them to navigate this new world? Yes, I know that overall, the "death risk" in a terrorist attack is infinitely low, compared to the daily risk of driving a car (especially for teens). But, still, we need to prepare our kids psychologically when a larger terrorist event hits. Scouts aren't creating new merit badges that recognize this sobering reality. Thank you.

Neil Docherty: I think the best thing we can do is to realize this is not just a military problem. we will soon run out of military tactics, and many serious people will argue that we cannot win this by just deploying the military.

We have to assess the politics of the Middle East. We have to be seen to be trying honestly to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and we have to address years of the West supporting dictators so we can get oil. Basically we have to robustly discuss politics and realize that our policies and history are important.

I hope though the world will be safer by the time your kids want to backpack--shame on us if we can't dreate a safer world for them


Montauk, N.Y.: Has there been cooperation between the EU states' security organizations and the FBI or CIA in tracking down the various al Qeada (or other Jihadist) cells in Europe?

What is the level of cooperation between EU states and the Arab world regarding security matters, specifically the tracking down of al Qaeda cells operation in Europe?

Neil Docherty: I think the co-operation is growing.


Chicago, Ill.: I was wondering why you did not interview Bernard Lewish or Fouad Ajami who might have provided some ideological diversity to the commentators you interviewed. There seemed to be a pronounced tilt towards interviewing Islamic extremists, Scheur who has an anti-Bush stance, and some Frenchmen who seemed to blame America for their problem. There did not seem much attention given to intrinsically European factors that have lead to extremism-such as racism, sclerotic Euro economies starving Muslim men of opportunities, segregation, etc.? Why don't we have the terrorism issues that Europe does domestically?

Neil Docherty: we went to great lengths to try and get anAdministration spokesperson. They declined. Other comentators such as Xavier Raufer in France I should point out are considered extremely conservative. Our aim was to largely reflect what is happening, and the thinking in Europe.

Scheuer made the film because of his credntials as former head of the bin Laden desk for the CIA


New Orleans, La.: Do you see the Europeans tightening up their lax immigration laws? If so, will it have any positive effect or what was hinted at in the program inevitable? Thanks.

Neil Docherty: I think that is likely. Europeans are feeling deluged by immigration from North Africa and elsewhere, which I think reflects the fairly desperate conditions in that part of the World.

It is a huge issue in Europe


St. Petersburg, Fla.: It would appear from your program that you believe the jihadist identity is an aspect of the relationship between Muslims and Europe. Not primordial in the sense that the explanation lies in Islamic culture, but rather something modern, something constructed out of the modern interaction of the diaspora Muslim population and European culture. Is that right? Is that understood to be the case by Europeans?

Neil Docherty: I think that is largely correct and is understood as such in Europe


Alexandria, Va.: Now that we all know that the aL Qaeda cells are already in Spain years before the Iraq war. Do you think Spain made a mistake from withdrawing their troops in Iraq knowingly it is part of the war against terrorism?

Neil Docherty: I think pulling out Spanish troops reflected the reality of Sapnish politics at the time. the war was extremely unpopular among the electorate and the Government had to have an election


Caracas, Venezuela: In Europe, has there been evidence of cooperation between al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, such as Hamas and Hezboalla?

Neil Docherty: Sorry don't feel competent to answer this


Wheaton, Md.: Is there any connection to Europe's symathetic position towards terrorists fighting against Israel to the spread of terrorists within their own borders?

Neil Docherty: Sorry--I dont know


Alexandria, Va.: Is the recent violence in the Netherlands really a Christian-Moslem problem, or rather a secularism-Moslem problem?

From what I read, Dutch Christian church leaders have hardly been stoking religious hatred from the pulpits. Regardless, I have not had the impression that the Netherlands is an especially Christian country anymore. White Dutch people are not necessarily Christian. For example, Theo van Gogh, whose murder sparked the violence, was certainly not a Christian.

Earlier reports in various Dutch fora implied that the mosques had probably been set on fire by right-wing, racist skinheads. There apparently have been long-standing problems with such groups.

Neil Docherty: Sorry--I don't feel competent to deal with this


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