Al Qaeda seen as clear and present danger to the world
By Khalid Hasan
Washington: Speakers at a one-day international conference on Al Qaeda held here on Thursday were in agreement that the terror network continued to remain a potent and dangerous organisation which had spawned terrorist groups in different countries, though they often acted on their own.
The conference billed ‘Al Qaeda 2.0: transnational terrorism after 9/11’ was jointly sponsored by the New America Foundation and the New York University Centre on Law and Security. It was held on Capitol Hill in one of the Senate buildings. Participants included well-known experts on Al Qaeda and terrorism from several countries, including Pakistan which was represented by a Geo Television anchor person.
The conference heard a range of interpretations of what Al Qaeda was and what it was not. There were Arab journalists speaking on the subject, including a senior commentator from al Jazeera, and several retired American intelligence officials with personal knowledge of the Middle East in particular and terrorism in general. The seven panels set up by the organisers considered the following aspects of Al Qaeda and Islamist terrorism: the current state of Al Qaeda, who joins Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda in Europe, militant Islam, the US vs Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda’s media strategy and Al Qaeda and its influence on Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
Bruce Hoffman of Rand Corporation told one of the panels that the basic pattern of Al Qaeda operations had remained unchanged, namely to attack the American infrastructure, US financial centres and US economic targets through spectacular acts of terror. He said Al Qaeda derived its support, from among others, from the Muslim diaspora in the West. It was not the current generation of Muslims living in the West that should be a cause for worry, he warned, but the next generation which could well go Islamist. Steve Simon, also of Rand and once of the National Security Council, was of the view that al Qaeda based its appeal on the solidarity of the Muslim Ummah which constituted a powerful message. It also made use of modern means of mass communication. Independent terrorist groups now tended to latch on to Al Qaeda. He reminded the conference that after the end of the Afghan war, the mujahideen fighting the Soviets were ready to go home but were not able to do so. He said Al Qaeda was active today in Saudi Arabia and staged 20 attacks in the Kingdom in a year. It was once estimated that 15,000 to 20,000 Saudi Arabian youth had received training at Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. The 9/11 attacks had helped Al Qaeda make fresh recruitment. He said that it was the “unfocused aspect” of jihad that should be studied and there was need to watch out for terrorism in Europe, which may be “ripe for it.” He also said the Muslims were “trapped by a web of lies” about the West. He said Al Qaeda funding came both from Islamic charities and individuals. He agreed with a questioner that Washington’s connection to repressive Muslim regimes was counter-productive and “difficult to escape.”
Yusri Fouda of al Jazeera TV told the conference that the United States should instead declare war on illiteracy, hunger and disease. It should stop supporting unrepresentative governments in Islamic countries. Osama Bin Laden spoke for so many Muslims when he attacked the regimes under which they lived. Fouda also stressed that Muslims around the world were not against America or Americans but the policies followed by America, such as those in the Middle East. Given the choice, he added, every Muslim and Arab would like to come to America and become an American citizen. He also asked if the US felt safer today than it did before 9/11 and if not, why not? He pointed out that the government in America had played into the hands of the extremist right. Ms Jessica Stern of Harvard spoke of her experiences travelling and gathering material in Muslim countries for her book (Terror in the Name of God). She also recalled a meeting she had on death row with Mir Aimal Kasi. He first wanted her to pay him for talking to her, and when she refused, he wanted her to donate to a charity he would name, and when she said no to that as well, he wanted her to convert to Islam. Marc Sagemen who worked for the CIA in Islamabad in the late 1980s, claimed that Al Qaeda is “operationally dead” and has no network any more. Its operations are uncoordinated and it has been using the Internet to create chat groups and give the impression that it is sill potent, but that is not true. It no longer has the ability to hurt the United States. However, “it is the next generation (of Muslims in the West) we should worry about,” he added. The threat, he explained, was from educated Muslims in Europe. He said there was no way the US could anticipate that the former Afghan mujahideen would eventually turn into al Qaeda.
Rohan Gunaratna, a noted terrorism expert now based in Singapore, was critical of what he called the “Rumsfeld approach” and the preemptive strike of the kind made against Iraq. He also pointed out that in the last 50 years, all terrorist attacks around the world had been made by migrants. He said Al Qaeda operations could be sustained even if only minority support was available to it. Al Qaeda, he pointed out, was concentrating on propaganda to spread its message. He was of the opinion that British Muslims of Pakistani origin were the more willing recruits for the cause. The new Al Qaeda fighter now came with a British university degree. He stressed that Al Qaeda remained a significant threat. There were 15 Al Qaeda-associated groups in Europe and Canada today, he claimed. He said the US invasion of Iraq had increased the threat of terrorism “several fold”. He said since Europe had not suffered a major terrorist attack like America, its guard against terrorism was lower. He advised European governments to go after not the operatives but their support cells. He identified Indonesia as another dangerous region where 40 jihadi groups were active today.
Ms Ursula Mueller of the German embassy said the Al Qaeda ideology was alive in Europe and terrorist cells could be activated at short notice. Al Qaeda was also involved in long-term planning. The mosques were the breeding grounds of jihadis, she charged. Europe today was in greater danger of terrorism than America, she said and Germany remained a particular target. There were 27 jihadi websites in Europe, she added. Michael Scheu, former head of the CIA’s counter-Osama Bin Laden unit, who recently authored the book ‘Through our Enemies’ Eyes: radical Islam and the future of America,’ told the conference that there were no terrorists detained at Guantanamo. He said the most “destabilising” idea was “exporting democracy”. “You think you can send a CD-ROM to a country and in six weeks it will have democracy,” he observed sardonically.
That sort of thinking, he added, spoke poorly of US knowledge of history. Col. Pat Long, formerly of the Defence Intelligence Agency, said, “We believe everybody is like us. We pick out bad guys and believe that once they are removed, all will be well, but that is not what happens.” Reuel Gerecht, formerly of the CIA, said the mosque in Europe was not integrated to the community in which it was located, but the situation in America was better. He was of the view that going by history, Islamic extremism will eventually fall into its component parts.
In the panel on Al Qaeda and media strategy, speakers emphasised Al Qaeda’s sophisticated use of the media, the Internet especially, to spread its message. It projected itself as much bigger than what it in reality was. Paul Eedle, a former Reuters correspondent in the Middle East, told the meeting that Al Qaeda used the Internet as a weapon to magnify its impact. The beheadings of kidnap victims were put out on the web to create a sense of terror and Al Qaeda’s power. As a result of it, for instance, all construction activity in Iraq had been paralysed as companies had pulled out their personnel.
He said all Al Qaeda had to make a worldwide impact was gain access to a single land-line to connect to the Internet. In answer to a question, one of the participants said that US agencies had the ability to trace such calls, but what action they took, once these calls were traced, he did not say.