Al Qaeda Leaders Seen in Control

Friends and relatives of victims in the London bombings grieved July 11 as they laid flowers following the deadliest terrorist strikes in British history.
Friends and relatives of victims in the London bombings grieved July 11 as they laid flowers following the deadliest terrorist strikes in British history. (By Daniel Berehulak -- Getty Images)

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By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 24, 2005

LONDON, July 23 -- The back-to-back nature of the deadly attacks in Egypt and London, as well as similarities in the methods used, suggests that the al Qaeda leadership may have given the orders for both operations and is a clear sign that Osama bin Laden and his deputies remain in control of the network, according to interviews with counterterrorism analysts and government officials in Europe and the Middle East.

Investigators on Saturday said that they believed the details of the bombing plots in Egypt and Britain -- the deadliest terrorist strikes in each country's history -- were organized locally by groups working independently of each other. In Sharm el-Sheikh, where the death toll rose to 88 people, attention centered on an al Qaeda affiliate blamed for a similar attack last October at Taba, another Red Sea resort. In London, where 52 bystanders were killed in the subway and on a bus, police have identified three of the four presumed suicide bombers as British natives with suspected connections to Pakistani radicals.

But intelligence officials and terrorist experts said they suspect that bin Laden or his lieutenants may have sponsored both operations from afar, as well as other explosions that have killed hundreds of people in Spain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Morocco since 2002. The hallmarks in each case: multiple bombings aimed at unguarded, civilian targets that are designed to scare Westerners and rattle the economy.

The officials and analysts also said the recent attacks indicate that the nerve center of the original al Qaeda network remains alive and well, despite the fact that many leaders have been killed or captured since the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings in the United States. Bin Laden may be in hiding, the officials and analysts said, and much is still unknown about the network. But they added that his organization remains fully capable of orchestrating attacks worldwide by recruiting local groups to do its bidding.

"What the London and Sharm el-Sheikh attacks may have in common are the people giving directions: This is what needs to be done, and this is how you do it," said Magnus Ranstorp, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Prince Turki al Faisal, the former director of foreign intelligence for Saudi Arabia who was named this past week as the kingdom's new ambassador to the United States, said in an interview, "All of these groups maintain a link of sort with bin Laden, either through Internet Web sites, or through messengers, or by going to the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan and maybe not necessarily meeting with bin Laden himself, but with his people.

"Since September 11, these people have continued to operate," he said, speaking at his residence here, where he has been serving as ambassador to Britain. "They are on the run, but they still act with impunity. They can produce their material and get it to the media, it seems, anytime they like. Along with that, of course, are the orders they give to their operatives, wherever they may be."

Overthrowing the Saudi monarchy has been a longtime goal for bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi native who was once close to the kingdom's rulers but was stripped of his citizenship in 1994.

Some senior U.S. officials have argued that bin Laden has been effectively bottled up since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and question whether al Qaeda still has the ability to plan major operations such as the Sept. 11 attacks.

In April, for example, the State Department concluded in its annual report on terrorist activity around the world that al Qaeda had been supplanted as the most worrisome threat by unaffiliated local groups of Islamic radicals acting on their own, without help from bin Laden or his aides. The pattern of attacks in 2004, the report stated, illustrates "what many analysts believe is a new phase of the global war on terrorism, one in which local groups inspired by al Qaeda organize and carry out attacks with little or no support or direction from al Qaeda itself."

Some regional Islamic radical groups function independently of al Qaeda but enter into mutual alliances for specific operations or campaigns, experts say. In Iraq, for instance, one of the primary networks of insurgents fighting the U.S. military is led by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian who has pledged his loyalty to bin Laden and acts publicly on behalf of al Qaeda but has developed his own organization.

But intelligence officials and analysts from European and Arab countries say there is increasing evidence that several of the deadliest bombings against civilian targets in recent years can be traced back to suspected mid-level al Qaeda operatives acting on behalf of bin Laden and the network's leadership. In some cases, counterterrorism investigators have concluded that bin Laden or his emissaries set plans in motion to launch attacks and then left it up to local networks or cells to take care of the details.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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