By Peter Bergen
Sunday, July 2, 2006
Over the past four years, key members of the Bush administration have claimed that al-Qaeda is "on the run" (Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice), "disrupted" (George Tenet) or "decimated" (President Bush). At the same time, however, significant terrorist attacks around the world have dramatically increased since Sept. 11, 2001, most of them conducted by militant Islamists. How does one reconcile this apparent contradiction?
A new narrative that purports to answer that question has emerged: Yes, al-Qaeda as an organization is severely impaired, but it has been replaced by a broader ideological movement made up of self-starting, homegrown terrorists who have few formal links to al-Qaeda but are motivated by a doctrine that can be called "Binladenism." Recent examples would include the militants in Madrid who bombed commuter trains in March 2004 and killed 191 people, or the seven terrorist wannabes recently arrested in Miami in connection with an alleged plot to blow up federal buildings. They had embraced al-Qaeda's doctrine of destruction, yet had no ties to the terrorist group.
However, according to five veteran U.S. counterterrorism officials I've spoken with recently, al-Qaeda the organization remains a real threat. One longtime government terrorism analyst points to the four suicide attacks in London last July 7 that killed 52 people as evidence of the organization's resilience. "At a minimum, this was an al-Qaeda-supported operation," the analyst told me. And al-Qaeda's leaders don't seem to be feeling the heat of the "war on terror." On Thursday, Osama bin Laden released his third audiotape in three months, while his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has appeared on an unprecedented number of videotapes since the second week of June -- averaging one a week.
So while the rapid spread of al-Qaeda's ideology in the past two years -- partly fueled by the Iraq war -- should be of considerable concern, it would be quite wrong to conclude that al-Qaeda the organization is down for the count. Indeed, if the bombings in London are any indication, it may be staging a comeback.
The London attacks of one year ago have generally been portrayed as the work of four young British men of Pakistani and Jamaican descent from the north of England -- distinguished only by their utter ordinariness -- who embraced radical Islamist ideology and managed to carry out the deadliest terrorist attack on British soil in history without outside help. The Sunday Times of London even opined that "the new breed of unaffiliated terrorist is potentially far more dangerous than the IRA or even al Qaeda because he is almost impossible to identify."
But the more you delve into the London bombings, the more they look like a classic al-Qaeda plot. The British government's official account of the attacks -- issued by the Home Office two months ago -- provides a revealing picture. It explains that the presumed ringleader, Mohammed Sidique Khan, visited Pakistan in 2003 and 2004, spending several months there. On one of those trips, he aimed "to cross the border and fight in Afghanistan," the report stated. (Presumably, Khan did not plan to fight alongside U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but rather to join the Taliban or al-Qaeda to kill Americans.)
The report goes on to note that Khan "had some contact with al Qaida figures" in Pakistan, and is "believed to have had some relevant training in a remote part of Pakistan, close to the Afghan border" during his two-week visit in 2003. The British government did not specify what sort of training he received, but given that the London bombs were made of highly efficient explosives that can't be readily made from recipes on the Internet, it is probable that the training was in the manufacturing of bombs. According to the report, Khan was also in "suspicious" contact with individuals in Pakistan in the four months immediately before the London attacks. Taken together, Khan's travels and contacts in Pakistan strongly suggest an al-Qaeda role in the operation.
Khan also appeared on a videotape that aired on al-Jazeera two months after the suicide attacks -- an important fact to which the British report did not give sufficient weight. "I'm going to talk to you in a language that you understand," Khan said on the tape, speaking in the broad brogue of his native Yorkshire. "Our words are dead until we give them life with our blood." He goes on to describe bin Laden and Zawahiri as "today's heroes." Appearing on the same videotape, Zawahiri trumpeted al-Qaeda's responsibility for the London bombings. As a veteran U.S. counterterrorism official told me, "Zawahiri does not take credit for things that he hasn't done."
On the videotape, Zawahiri referenced a prior al-Qaeda threat to explain the targeting of London, saying "Didn't . . . Sheik Osama bin Laden offer you a truce?" -- a reference to the al-Qaeda leader's April 2004 proposal of a peace agreement with those European countries willing to pull out of Iraq. Britain is the most prominent member of that coalition. Bin Laden offered a three-month grace period before the truce expired in July 2004. A year later, the four bombers blew themselves up in London.
But the key piece of evidence overlooked in the British government report is that both Khan and Zawahiri's statements were made on a videotape bearing the distinctive logo of al-Sahab ("the clouds"), which is al-Qaeda's television production arm. Al-Sahab's first tape, a two-hour al-Qaeda infomercial, debuted on the Internet in the summer of 2001, signaling that a major anti-American attack was in the works. Since then, al-Sahab has continued to release key statements from al-Qaeda leaders. Khan's appearance on the videotape strongly suggests that he met up with members of al-Qaeda's media team based on the Afghan-Pakistan border, probably in the tribal area of Waziristan. There is much we still don't know about Khan's activities in Pakistan, but additional information is likely to point toward further contact with members of al-Qaeda in Pakistan.
The rapidly deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan over the past year is also, in part, the responsibility of al-Qaeda. The use of suicide attacks and makeshift bombs and the beheadings of hostages -- all techniques that al-Qaeda perfected in Iraq -- are methods that the Taliban has increasingly adopted in Afghanistan, making much of the south of the country a no-go area.
Hekmat Karzai, an Afghan terrorism researcher at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore, points out that suicide bombings were rare in Afghanistan until 2005, when 21 such attacks took place. This year has already seen at least 16. In addition, Karzai reports that two of al-Qaeda's "most able" commanders -- Khalid Habib, a Moroccan, and Abd al Hadi, an Iraqi -- have been appointed to run its operations in southeastern and southwestern Afghanistan. These developments suggest that al-Qaeda is regrouping and strengthening along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
And, of course, bin Laden and Zawahiri remain at large in that border region, issuing a stream of tapes aimed at inflaming their supporters around the world. Zawahiri, for example, released a video last week urging further attacks on U.S. and other coalition forces in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, bin Laden's ongoing influence over al-Qaeda's affiliates was confirmed after the death last month of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq. Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, al-Qaeda's new leader in Iraq, quickly released a statement on a jihadist Web site pledging allegiance to bin Laden: "We are at your disposal, ready for your command." Muhajer has longstanding ties to Zawahiri; they have both been members of Egypt's ultra-violent Jihad Group for more than two decades. A U.S. intelligence official told me that the intelligence community's recognition of bin Laden and Zawahiri's continued importance to Islamist terrorists worldwide has led to a renewed push in the past two months to locate them.
Almost five years after the attacks on Washington and New York, al-Qaeda not only remains in business in its traditional stronghold on the Afghan-Pakistan border, but continues to project its ideology and terrorism abroad. So now we face a world of ideologically driven homegrown terrorists -- free radicals unattached to any formal organization -- in addition to formal networks such as al-Qaeda that have managed to survive despite the tremendous pressure brought to bear against them since 9/11. And even more grim, they now feed off and strengthen one another.
Peter Bergen is a Schwartz senior fellow at the New America Foundation and author of "The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader" (Free Press).