View Full Version : Weaker Al Qaeda Shifts To Smaller-Scale Attacks

10-15-02, 03:53 PM
Experts Say New Strategy Aims at Disruption

By Peter Finn and Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 15, 2002; Page A01

Recent suicide bombing attacks and plots against Westerners show that al Qaeda loyalists are heeding their weakened leadership's call to initiate a new terror campaign using rudimentary, smaller-scale operations aimed at creating economic hardship, according to U.S., Western and Arab intelligence officials and experts.

With its leaders in hiding and its finances and communications slashed by the war on terrorism, al Qaeda is resorting to more indiscriminate attacks against "soft" targets. But officials warn that while the strategy may be a sign of weakness, the simplicity of these attacks might make them more difficult to predict and prevent.

Saturday's car bomb attack in a nightclub district on the Indonesian island of Bali, which Indonesia's defense minister yesterday linked to al Qaeda and its local allies, was the latest in a string of fatal attacks that include sniper shootings in Kuwait, Afghanistan and the Philippines, and suicide bombings in Pakistan and against European tourists in Tunisia.

Moroccan officials have said they broke up plans to target tourist sites this spring and averted suicide assaults on U.S. and British ships in the Strait of Gibraltar. In one case, al Qaeda operatives, who had fled the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan, planned to detonate a bomb in a popular square in Marrakech, the officials said.

Saudi officials said they had broken up planned attacks on government buildings and prevented the killing of Americans on the streets of the kingdom. Arrested militants linked to al Qaeda were exploring the possibility of using silencer-equipped weapons to kill Americans at close range in public places, Saudi officials said.

Yesterday, the pan-Arab al-Jazeera satellite television network broadcast what it said was a written statement by Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda's leader, applauding last week's attacks on U.S. Marines in Kuwait and a French oil tanker near Yemen. The statement also condemned U.S. plans to attack Iraq. "We congratulate the Muslim nation for the daring and heroic jihad operations which our brave sons conducted in Yemen against the Christian oil tanker and in Kuwait against the American occupation," the statement said.

Other statements last week attributed to bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, also praised the attacks and warned Western governments of more to come.

Up to and including Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda's signature actions were elaborately planned and centrally controlled -- the bombing of U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, the attack on the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 and the suicide airliner hijackings that struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- and all of them took months or years to plan.

Intelligence officials said that after the U.S.-led defeat of Afghanistan's Taliban rulers, hundreds of al Qaeda fighters were told to flee Afghanistan to their home countries and then independently target American, Jewish and other Western interests. These operatives were expected to conceive and execute acts of terror independent of the group's leadership, Arab officials said.

Frank Anderson, the CIA's former top Middle East operations official, said the emphasis on smaller targets shows that the al Qaeda leadership "has been significantly reduced. . . . If al Qaeda has gotten down to ones and twos, that's better than one hundreds and two hundreds."

U.S. intelligence officials said they intercepted communications in late September signaling a strike on a Western tourist site. Bali was mentioned in the U.S. intelligence report, officials said.

Foreign diplomats have suggested complicity in the Bali attack by Jemaah Islamiah, an Indonesian group with training and financial links to al Qaeda. A senior U.S. official described Jemaah Islamiah and al Qaeda as "fellow travelers." The Indonesian group has its own agenda, envisioning the establishment of an Islamic state in the area of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. It has been accused of bombings in the Philippines and Singapore, and of operating training camps for fighters.

Al Qaeda's desire to form deeper alliances with other Islamic extremist groups can be seen in Pakistan. There, the organization has linked itself with local militants to advance a campaign of destabilization and simultaneously find the shelter necessary to build a new command center.

According to Western and Pakistani officials, al Qaeda is seeking allies or recruits among defectors from Pakistani militant groups who are unhappy with the military regime's cooperation with the United States and what they believe is their own leadership's acquiescence in the government's campaign against al Qaeda.

Police officials in Karachi said in recent interviews that they believe al Qaeda is attempting to absorb a breakaway faction of Jaish-i-Muhammad, a banned Pakistani militant organization. And police and intelligence officials in Karachi said they had evidence that Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, a Sunni Muslim group responsible for the killing of dozens of Shiite Muslims in recent years, had already come under the al Qaeda umbrella and was providing safe houses and intelligence for fighters fleeing Afghanistan.

Three Lashkar activists were implicated in the murder of American newspaper correspondent Daniel Pearl of the Wall Street Journal. Karachi police said a senior al Qaeda figure, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, also directly participated in the journalist's slaying.

Pakistani and Western officials say they believe that Mohammed, a Pakistani born in Kuwait, is hiding in Karachi and directing operations worldwide -- within the constraints of the limited forms of communication he can employ.

Mohammed, for instance, has been directly linked to an April suicide attack on a Tunisian synagogue that killed 21 people, most of them tourists. Three hours before the attack, the driver of a truck laden with liquid propane called Mohammed in Karachi to signal that the attack was imminent, according to Western officials.

Mohammed surfaced most recently in an interview in Karachi, broadcast last month by al-Jazeera, in which he appeared with Ramzi Binalshibh, a key member of the cell that led the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Binalshibh was captured in Karachi, on the first anniversary of the attacks, with seven other al Qaeda members.

Western, Pakistani and Arab officials say they believe that other senior al Qaeda figures, including bin Laden's son, Saad, if not Zawahiri and bin Laden himself, are also hiding in Pakistan. Arab officials said that Saad, who is in his early twenties, has been using the Internet to contact al Qaeda members and supporters worldwide to encourage further attacks.

In speaking of the attacks of the past 10 days, Senate intelligence committee Chairman Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who is briefed regularly on terrorism issues, said: "All of them have the fingerprints of al Qaeda. Was it a coincidence? I won't count on it.

"We are in a period in which these acts of terrorism directed against foreigners -- and against Americans when available -- will become more continual."

Finn reported from Berlin, Priest from Washington. Correspondent Kamran Khan in Karachi and staff writers Walter Pincus and Susan Schmidt in Washington contributed to this report.

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