Al Qaeda after Madrid

The war in Iraq is radicalising a new generation of Islamic terrorist freelancers
June 19, 2004

Despite several hundred books and countless words of analysis since 11th September, there is still some confusion over al Qaeda's true nature. Some, albeit a diminishing number, believe that al Qaeda is a group of fanatical terrorists, led by Osama bin Laden, with a network of "sleeper cells" all over the world. Some describe al Qaeda as a set of loosely linked groups with broadly shared goals. It is spoken of as a "brand" or a "franchise." Others deny the existence of al Qaeda altogether, saying that if al Qaeda is anything, it is a worldview. Still more want to use it as a label applied to all modern, Sunni Muslim salafi jihadi militant activism.

This lack of definition has clouded thinking and policymaking. Politicians and intelligence services know that to label any attack in their own country as the work of al Qaeda simultaneously deflects attention from their own domestic problems and establishes them as allies in the war on terror. At the least this improves their standing with Washington; at best it releases a torrent of aid and diplomatic support. The governments of Russia, Uzbekistan, Algeria and the Philippines have been shameless in finding al Qaeda responsible for events that they know are nothing to do with any external group.

Al Qaeda - the three phases

The fundamental unit of the resistance fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989 was, in various local dialects, the komite, the karaga, the markaz and, for some of the 20,000 or so Arabs who joined in the war, the qaeda. Arabic newspapers currently refer to the main US-led military base at Bagram in Afghanistan as al Qaeda Bagram.

It is this translation as "the base" that is most common today. However, there are several other possible translations that help us to understand the phenomenon of modern Islamic militancy and the role of Osama bin Laden's group within it. Most crucially, al Qaeda can also mean a precept, maxim, rule, formula or methodology. At a trial in New York in 2001, an FBI agent gave details of his interrogation of Khalfan Khamis Mohammed, one of the suspected bombers of the US embassy in Dar es Salaam three years previously. The agent told the court that when Mohammed had been asked about the term al Qaeda he had said that "al Qaeda was a formula system for what they carried out." Last year I asked several militants active in the late 1980s and early 1990s to explain what Mohammed meant. They said that al Qaeda, translated as "the rules," was a way of acting, a tactic in any given situation based on skills learnt in the fight against the Soviets.

The term al Qaeda has another important sense. It derives in part from leftist revolutionary theory in the five decades between the formation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928 and the war in Afghanistan. Abdullah Azzam, chief ideologue of the non-Afghan militants drawn to fight with the mujahedin and an early mentor of Bin Laden, used the term al Qaeda to describe the role he envisaged the most committed volunteers would play once the war against the Soviets was over. In 1987 he wrote, "Every principle needs a vanguard to carry it forward... this vanguard constitutes the strong foundation [al qaeda al-sulbah] for the expected society."

These three different senses of al Qaeda can help us to understand its three distinct phases. Although its roots lie in 19th-century anti-colonial struggles, modern international Islamic militancy began in the late 1980s. During its first phase, it is al Qaeda in the sense of the vanguard that was most relevant. The second phase, 1997 to 2001, saw the creation of something closer to "the base" of popular conception. In the current, third phase, it is the "formula system," the maxim, precept or rule, that is the most appropriate translation.

Al Qaeda: The vanguard

Two main types of Islamic militancy emerged in the aftermath of the 1979-89 war in Afghanistan: local insurgencies which aimed to impose Islamic law on specific countries, and transnational or international militancy, which targeted an ill-defined range of people deemed responsible for the ills of the umma, the global Muslim community.

In many countries, such as Egypt and Algeria, long-running tensions between a relatively secular state and local Islamic movements were exacerbated by the return of individuals from Afghanistan who gave those conflicts a more violent edge. Where those involved in local struggles opted to export violence overseas, they usually targeted former colonial powers. Thus people loosely connected with the Algerian Groupe Islamique Arm?e (GIA) bombed public transport in Paris and people linked to the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group attacked their own embassy in Islamabad in the mid-1990s. Westerners who were targeted were usually tourists or expatriate businessmen and were seen as complicit with regimes.

The second, and less common type of militancy at the time was largely orchestrated by a small number of men, probably only 100 or so, who conceived of themselves as a vanguard of a leftist kind. They were heavily influenced both by Abdullah Azzam's tactical idea of how a vanguard might act and his violent, mythopoeic, millenarian discourse.

One man who had been active during the war in Afghanistan and went on to freelance terrorist activities afterwards was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was captured in Pakistan last year. Sheikh Mohammed was born in 1964 or 1965 into a wealthy, devout Pakistani family living in Kuwait. His background had many elements typical of militants: devout or demanding parents, rapid social and economic change around the family, exposure to new environments and further education in technical disciplines. Sheikh Mohammed went to university in the US but by 1989 he was in Peshawar, Pakistan, teaching engineering at the college run by Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf, an Afghan warlord.

When the war in Afghanistan finished, Sheikh used the contacts he had with wealthy donors in the Gulf (who could supply money), national-based militant groups (who could supply manpower) and warlords like Sayyaf (who could supply material) to put together a series of attacks on international targets over the next four years. Instead of directing his efforts against a local regime, Sheikh Mohammed focused on symbolic targets representing those whom he believed were deliberately maintaining the Islamic world in a state of division, impiety and weakness. Sheikh Mohammed is implicated in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Centre, in an attempt to kill Benazir Bhutto, the Pakistani prime minister around the same time, and in attempted attacks against the Pope, a series of passenger jets and Bill Clinton planned in the Philippines two years later. Yet he was never affiliated to any one organisation. He was, in the words of a US intelligence document from the late 1990s, a one-man "operational hub," a one-man "vanguard." Like an international businessman brokering deals, he drew on his contacts books, filled with numbers picked up during time in the jihad, in training camps or through family and tribal connections, to gather what was needed. Sheikh was the very picture of the modern militant.

Bin Laden's involvement in terrorist acts at the time was tangential. From 1989 to 1991, he was in Saudi Arabia, an irritant to the house of al-Saud but few others. Then until 1996 he was in Sudan. Both Bin Laden and Sheikh Mohammed may have been part of the "vanguard" but they were not part of a specific group. Nor was any such organisation forged in the so-called theatres of jihad of Bosnia and Chechnya, which relied on dozens of men like Sheikh Mohammed to channel funds and recruits to them.

In Afghanistan, scores of training camps were run by dozens of different groups. They received volunteers from everywhere from Brooklyn to Borneo and funds from all over the Islamic world. Bin Laden's involvement in the Afghan camps was limited to running a series of guest houses in the Pakistani border city of Peshawar where recruits were put up while going in and out of the camps. Though respected for his decision to reject his heritage as a pampered son of one of the middle east's richest business families, he was still seen as peripheral to contemporary Islamic activism. Indeed, as I was recently told by a Libyan militant active in Sudan at the time, he was perceived by many as a "showboating rich kid" who lived in relative safety while others fought a dangerous struggle against a variety of regimes in the Islamic world.

Al Qaeda: The base

Bin Laden returned to Afghanistan in May 1996, invited not, as is commonly presumed, by the Taleban but by a group of their opponents. He was, however, able to ingratiate himself with the newly formed Islamic militia and during the next five years extended his influence over them. This growing relationship, the celebrity status brought by a series of attacks for which he was widely perceived, (not always correctly) as responsible, and the arrival of his partner from Sudan, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, allowed him to gain control of the huge infrastructure that had been developed over the previous ten years for training Islamic militants. Bin Laden himself had not built a single one of the camps which he controlled, but their possession put him in the unique position of being able to provide, to any Islamic militant in the world, security and training. With his own, and his partners', connections in the Gulf, he was also able to provide funding. The double bombing of US embassies in east Africa in August 1998, the first attacks for which Bin Laden and his associates were indisputably responsible, also raised his profile among militants and this, enhanced by clever manipulation of the media, brought him fame and authority.

From 1998 to 2001, thousands of young men from all over the Islamic world made their way to Afghanistan. Reliable statistics are hard to come by but some analysts talk of 15,000, which seems reasonable. It is important not to overemphasise Bin Laden's role in attracting these militants. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Jordanian-centred al-Tauhid group, Harkat ul-Mujahedin of Pakistan, and many others all ran training camps too during this period - as many had done since the end of the 1980s. Most of the volunteers who made their way to Afghanistan did so because they wanted to fight with the Taleban or wanted training in order to join militant units in Chechnya or their home countries.

Towards the end of the 1990s an increasing proportion of those travelling to Afghanistan were looking for assistance in executing terrorist attacks and sought out Bin Laden or his aides for help. Ahmed Ressam, the man arrested in December 1999 on his way to blow up Los Angeles airport, was given $12,000 and a sample of explosive after approaching Bin Laden through an intermediary. A Jordanian group, also part of the so-called millennium plot, asked Abu Zubaydah, one of Bin Laden's lieutenants, for training facilities. As with most such requests - for training, money, materials - support was only provided in return for a degree of control over subsequent operations. Different groups were thus co-opted and brought within what Bin Laden was calling at the time his World Islamic Front.

Approaches from Kurdish militant groups, for example, were welcomed and used to establish influence in northern Iraq. Not all requests were granted. A video presentation of a plan to attack US servicemen brought by a representative of a Singaporean group was rejected. According to the report of his interrogation in Morocco, when Zouhair al-Tubaiti, a Saudi, asked for a "martyrdom job" in late 2000, he was told to come back when he had a plan. Bin Laden's own offers of help were often turned down by local groups and leaders anxious to preserve their autonomy.

In addition to helping other people realise their jihadi ambitions, Bin Laden and his associates were also commissioning their own projects. The 11th September plot, which relied heavily on recruits from among those who had come to fight with the Taleban or to get training for other theatres of jihad, was one.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was deeply involved in the planning of the 9/11 attacks. Sheikh Mohammed had arrived in Afghanistan in 1996 or 1997 from Qatar, fleeing an American bid to arrest him. He was one of scores of experienced militants who made their way to Afghanistan to join forces with Bin Laden and exploit the resources he was able to offer. Thus a substantial proportion of "the vanguard" coalesced in one place.

This was al Qaeda in the sense of "the base," or as near as it ever got: a handful of well-known senior militants, a few score less famous but still experienced expert operatives, several dozen camps filled with eager young volunteers from which teams of terrorists could be drawn, and a queue of applicants from groups all over the world hoping to receive assistance. It is worth pointing out, however, that Bin Laden and his comrades, though they used a wide variety of names to describe their various groups, alliances and coalitions, did not use the term al Qaeda to describe any group, even at this late stage.

Al Qaeda: maxim, precept, formula

Material that has emerged from trials in Indonesia (following the Bali bombing in October 2002) and Casablanca (where a series of targets were attacked in May 2003) has shown that the degree of command and control exercised from abroad was negligible, despite the fact that the authorities claimed al Qaeda links in both cases. For the Bali bombings, much of the financing appears to have been provided by a shadowy older Indonesian activist called Riduan Isamuddin, with connections to Bin Laden and people around him. However, it became clear at the trial of the bombers who killed 200 in the nightclub on Kuta beach that they were a self-formed group who selected their own target. In Casablanca, one or two experienced local militants seem to have been able to recruit more than 20 local boys from the slums as suicide bombers with relative ease. And the signs are that the Istanbul bombings in November 2003 were similar: one or two older, more experienced militants who trained in Afghanistan in the late 1990s were able to find a number of home-grown volunteers for suicide attacks.

Though there are exceptions (the suicide bombing of a hotel used by Israeli tourists in Kenya in November 2002 may be one) the trend over the last two years has been for attacks that are increasingly autonomous. Attacks in Saudi Arabia in May and November 2003 appear to have been conducted by homegrown activists too. The terrorists' failure to gather up to date information about their targets in the latter attack resulted in the deaths of many Muslims. This ineptitude indicates a limited role for Bin Laden, his aides and their usually highly professional local affiliates.

The attack on commuter trains in Madrid in March also shows how the terrorist movement is increasingly fragmented. Spanish investigators have focused their efforts on a group of Moroccan activists who appear to have been acting entirely independently of any al Qaeda hard core.

The concentration of Islamic activists that occurred in Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001 was a transient phase in the development of modern Muslim militancy. All that is left there is a fairly bedraggled rump that bears no comparison to the huge terrorist production lines of the late 1990s. (Even the "neo-Taleban" are not numerous. A few score leaders command a few hundred fighters and are able to summon a couple of thousand for occasional short-term deployments). Bin Laden himself appears to be alive and in relatively good health despite a bad back (reports of kidney problems are inaccurate) but is now largely peripheral to modern Islamic militancy. His movements are restricted to a small, though inaccessible, area along the frontier east of the Afghan city of Khost and north of Quetta, the capital of the Pakistani province of Baluchistan. His ability to communicate is severely limited, but with his gift for propaganda clearly intact, his occasional interventions, such as his dramatic offer to the Europeans of a "truce," do have significant impact. Increasingly, however, the west pays more attention to them than do the Islamic or Arab world. Bin Laden's iconic value is still potent but his capability as an operational leader is negligible. In January an al Qaeda training manual was posted on the web by senior figures once active in Afghanistan. Denied of physical space, they have moved their training programme into cyberspace. If al Qaeda is translated just as "the base," then we are in a post-al Qaeda phase. (Terrorist groups trade the resilience of a decentralised almost leaderless virtual network against the capability of a more organised cadre structure. The latter allows bigger attacks but at greater risk. The former limits the scale of strikes but is extremely strong.)

The current situation bears some resemblance to the first vanguard phase. A small number of key individuals are moving around the Islamic world, drawing together the constituent elements of a terrorist attack, motivating local volunteers, providing expertise and access to funds from wealthy donors in the Gulf, advising on targets and timing.

Yet there are significant differences with the earlier period too. One is that western governments are now more focused on combating Islamic terrorism. The second is that the events of the last two and a half years have led to the Islamic world being immeasurably more radicalised and politically conscious than it was in the early 1990s. The worldview of Sunni Muslim salafi jihadi militants is now far more widespread than a few years ago.

Local struggles are now being conceived as taking place in the context of a global struggle between Islam and the west. In Indonesia last year I saw pro-Palestinian slogans scrawled on walls and young Muslim activists with pictures of Bin Laden on their T-shirts. In Kashmir, where locals were once proud of their moderate, Sufi-influenced Islam, I was told by many ordinary people that India was part of a Hindu-Zionist-crusader alliance. Such language would have been inconceivable a few years ago - as would Kashmiri youths undertaking suicide attacks as they have done in recent months. Back in 1994, the Taleban had no aims beyond restoring their own country to some kind of imagined perfect Islamic society, heavily influenced by their own tribal culture. Now no statement from Mullah Omar or his associates is without rants about the crusaders or the Zionists. In northwestern Pakistan, Pashtun tribal identity is rapidly fusing with a radical Islamic identity. Increasingly, to be Pashtun is to hate Jews and Christians. This is new. So is the violence of the rhetoric directed at Israel, Jews, non-Muslims and America by some in Islamic communities in the west.

This is not to say that these are the only views in the Islamic world. Surveys in 2002 such as Zogby International's "Arab Nations' impressions of America" poll or the Pew Centre's Global Attitudes Survey showed that a belief in values seen as typically American (elected government, personal liberty, educational opportunity and economic choice) can coexist with visceral anti-Americanism. The vast bulk of the world's approximately 1.3bn Muslims remain moderate, if resentful and "conflicted."

But the truth is that al Qaeda makes sense to many more people today than ten years ago. A previously fairly restricted discourse which is full of hate, prejudice and myth and which, in its extreme form, legitimises atrocious acts and enables young men to transgress against all their own social norms and kill themselves and innocent civilians, is spreading. Hard data is extremely difficult to come.

The logical result of the extension of al Qaeda ideology is an increase in the, admittedly still very limited, number who are prepared to act according to al Qaeda methodology. So the bombers of the British consulate in Istanbul, the Jewish cultural centre in Casablanca, the nightclub in Bali, the foreigners' compound in Riyadh, the American consulate in Karachi, the railway stations in Madrid, and the hundreds of associates who provide logistical or other support, are all acting in the style popularised by Bin Laden and his aides with an agenda set by them but not directed by them. They don't need to be. They know what to do and feel convinced that they should do it.

And these are merely the headline attacks. There are many more that either do not succeed or are not reported. In Pakistan, Afghanistan and parts of the middle east there is a steady background hum of violence that is informed by the new radical ideology.

The war in Iraq, justified or otherwise, has played a part in this, accelerating the process of radicalisation set in train by "the vanguard" a decade or so ago. In Washington there is now a recognition that the hundreds of young men who are making their way to fight the Americans in Iraq are acting independently of al Qaeda, in anything other than its loosest definition. They are freelancers. As recent investigations in Germany and Italy have shown, they are helped by more experienced militants who have the necessary connections but are acting out of their own convictions. The numbers reaching Iraq are still relatively small (fewer than 500 foreign militants have been captured by US forces there) but with anger throughout the Muslim world continually stoked by the reporting of the new Arabic television channels and newspapers this number is likely to rise. It was clear from my conversations with locals in Iraq and Jordan in May that pictures of the mistreatment of prisoners by US troops in Iraq had not blackened the name of America, as often claimed. They had merely confirmed an existing perception of the US as set on the humiliation and domination of Muslims wherever possible.

Winning or losing the war on terror?

The war on terror has made notable progress in several areas. There has been no massive spectacular attack on the scale of 11th September. The Madrid attacks killed 200, not 3,000. Casualties among western populations remain, in relative terms, negligible. The terrorist infrastructure that had been built up in Afghanistan has been destroyed and, according to the US state department, two thirds of the militant leaders who came together around Bin Laden during the late 1990s have been killed or captured. Thousands of other militants have been incarcerated or are now dead and their networks destroyed or disrupted. Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri themselves are largely out of commission.

In addition, millions of dollars of funds have been seized and the terrorist financing systems seriously impaired. Massively increased surveillance and investigation by many major western intelligence services has forced militant organisations to move their operations to the physical and economic peripheries of our world (or indeed into cyberspace). No training camps such as those once found in Afghanistan currently exist. Instead there are a few rudimentary facilities in north, west and east Africa, the most unruly parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan, central Asia and the Caucasus. Finances now depend on the physical transfer of gold or other precious substances or unregulated hawala transactions.

Vastly improved systems for the exchange of information between intelligence services have also had a major impact. Indeed, there has probably never been such a degree of co-operation between security authorities in America, Europe, the middle east and elsewhere. This was amply demonstrated when Riduan Isamuddin, the militant involved in the Bali bombing, was arrested near Bangkok after a joint operation last summer. The governments of America, Australia, Malaysia and Thailand all shared the credit. And, of course, increased security precautions, whether concrete blocks outside the houses of parliament or better checks at airports, have made terrorist attacks that much harder.

There is also significant attention being paid to the threat from weapons of mass destruction for the first time. The evidence that Islamic militants have the intent to use such arms is manifest - I found a stack of documents in a camp in eastern Afghanistan in November 2001 that detailed recipes for various chemical and biological weapons. Yet there is little indication that the militants are close to having any kind of non-conventional capability. It is extremely difficult for non-governmental actors to obtain the necessary materials and turn them into weapons. This is why almost all recent terrorist attacks have used standard items - petrol and fertiliser mixed to form ammonium nitrate, military shells or bombs and plastic explosives. Even 11th September was low-tech. The sophistication was in the idea, not the execution. Nonetheless, the materials listed in the documents I found are now considerably harder to get hold of than they were three years ago. All of the measures taken so far are standard counter-terrorist tactics, merely applied with greater political will and larger budgets.

As for Bin Laden, it is safe to suppose that he is rather pleased with himself. If our aim is to eradicate, or at least limit, the threat of terrorism, and his is to radicalise and mobilise as many people as possible in the Islamic world, then he has made as much, if not more, progress towards achieving his goals than we have in thwarting them. Claims from the US that the number of terrorism offences has been falling in recent years are misleading. It may be the case that there were 19o international terror attacks last year - using the state department's narrow definition - as opposed to 346 in 2001. However, much of this drop was a result of the decrease in attacks on US-owned pipelines in Colombia.

The numbers game is slightly ridiculous when it comes to the reality of contemporary Islamic terrorism. In 2002, US intelligence officials consistently briefed that al Qaeda comprised about 5,000 individuals and a hard core of 200. General Joseph Hoar, the former commander in chief of US central command, told a hearing of the Senate armed services committee that there were "perhaps 10,000 to 20,000 supporters." A report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies referred to over 18,000 potential terrorists. The truth is that nobody knows. "Who's in, who's out?" a former CIA senior officer asked me recently. "Who's a supporter? Who's a member? And of what? It is impossible to tell." Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, recognised this in a memo leaked in October last year: "Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror."

The current perception in America is that al Qaeda, still imagined as some ?ber-terrorist organisation, has changed strategy. Over time, this identification of the threat as coming from one organisation will diminish. Rumsfeld's memo acknowledged concerns that madrasas and radical clerics were producing recruits faster than Americans could kill or incarcerate them. "It's going to be a long, hard slog," he said. This is progress of a sort.