The Assailants

Attacks Bear Earmarks Of Evolving Al Qaeda

By Steve Coll and Susan B. Glasser
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 8, 2005

After Sept. 11, 2001, the world learned that counterterrorism specialists had seen that kind of attack coming, they just did not know when and where it would take place. In a similar sense, they saw yesterday's London bombings coming, too; they have been warning of such a strike on European soil for much of this year.

It took only a few hours for British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to conclude that the assault bore the "hallmarks of an al Qaeda-related attack." And while investigators were still sifting through the evidence, the available facts -- the British venue, the soft targets with economic importance, the timing during the Group of Eight summit in Scotland and the relatively simple operational techniques -- conformed almost precisely to the methods of what specialists describe as an evolving al Qaeda movement.

Now more a brand than a tight-knit group, al Qaeda has responded to four years of intense pressure from the United States and its allies by dispersing its surviving operatives, distributing its ideology and techniques for mass-casualty attacks to a wide audience on the Internet, and encouraging new adherents to act spontaneously in its name.

Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, terrorism experts in and out of government have warned that the movement has appeared to gain ground, particularly in Europe, where a large, mobile, technology-savvy and well-educated Muslim population includes some angry and alienated young people attracted to the call of holy war against the West.

The simultaneous bombings of four rush-hour commuter trains in Madrid on March 11, 2004, the shooting death of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh last November and recent preemptive arrests made by European police suggest a less top-down, more grass-roots-driven al Qaeda. The movement's ability to carry off sophisticated, border-crossing attacks such as those Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants mounted against New York and the Pentagon almost four years ago appears diminished, some experts say.

Yet al Qaeda's chief ideologues -- bin Laden, his lieutenant Ayman Zawahiri and, more recently, the Internet-fluent Abu Musab Zarqawi -- have been able to communicate freely to their followers, even while in hiding. In the past 18 months, they have persuaded dozens of like-minded young men, operating independently of the core al Qaeda leadership, to assemble and deliver suicide or conventional bombs in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Spain, Egypt and now apparently London.

As in the Madrid bombings, these looser adherents sometimes copy al Qaeda's signature method of simultaneous explosions against symbolic or economic targets, an approach repeatedly advocated by bin Laden in his recent recorded speeches.

"No more 9/11, but lots of 3/11, especially in Europe," declared the final slide in a PowerPoint presentation about al Qaeda's evolution presented at numerous U.S. government forums this year by terrorism specialist and former CIA case officer Marc Sageman, a clinical psychologist who has recently studied al Qaeda's European cells.

The British bombings "seem to be very much consistent with a Sunni jihadist movement that is overall as strong as ever but more decentralized, in which attacks are being instigated and carried out in more places than just the core leadership hiding in their caves in South Asia," said a former senior U.S. intelligence official.

Al Qaeda's evolution from headquarters-planned conspiracies toward diffuse ideological incitement and tactical support is consistent with bin Laden's long-stated goal for the organization he founded on an Afghan ridge in the summer of 1988. For years, bin Laden has emphasized his desire to be remembered as a vanguard, an inspiring leader whose spark would light a spreading fire among all the world's Muslims, causing them to revolt en masse against Christians, Jews and their allies in the Middle East.

"According to Osama bin Laden's thinking, there are no dormant cells," Abu Jandal, one of bin Laden's former bodyguards in Afghanistan, said in a recently published interview in the Arabic-language newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi. "Every element of al Qaeda is self-activated. Whoever finds a chance to attack just goes ahead. The decision is theirs. This is regardless of whether they pledged allegiance to Sheik Osama bin Laden or not."

During the last year, the thinking of bin Laden and other key fugitive leaders -- as communicated in taped addresses and on password-protected Internet message boards -- has been influenced by the course of the war in Iraq. Last November, Zarqawi pledged allegiance to bin Laden, and by doing so created at least the appearance of a unified al Qaeda approach to the war, with Zarqawi operating as the frontline commander and bin Laden as his spiritual and political mentor.

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