Al Qaeda May Be Rebuilding ; US Has Captured Key Operatives, Yet the War in Iraq May Spawn a New Army of Recruits
Faye Bowers writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
As the US has focused on the war in Iraq, Al Qaeda may have been lying low - watching and waiting for the right opportunity to strike.
To be sure, the US has accumulated a string of successes in combating Osama bin Laden's umbrella terrorism group. At least five top-tier Al Qaeda operatives, who may provide information that helps authorities head off future attacks, have been apprehended since March 2001.
Overall, the news on terrorism has been good. Terrorist attacks worldwide dropped by 30 percent from 2001 to 2002, according to a new State Department report.
But some intelligence sources and experts outside government believe that Al Qaeda has been quiet by choice, not because its plans have been disrupted. There is also evidence that Al Qaeda's remaining leadership believes the war in Iraq will produce a new stream of recruits disenchanted with American actions, perhaps allowing Al Qaeda to create a new front of international jihad.
"The toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime could have a cataclysmic effect on the mobilization of recruits for Al Qaeda," states an intelligence report prepared by a European partner in the war on terror. "Despite the significant successes we've had against them, and the pressure we've brought to bear, we cannot say that the Al Qaeda network has been weakened, let alone destroyed."
These sources are concerned that, since the fall of Afghanistan, Al Qaeda has continued to do what it has learned to do well over the years - evolve and adapt as the US and its allies cut off its bases of support. Recently, the network has:
* Replaced some key leaders while decentralizing its operations - outsourcing many of its recruiting, training, and planning activities to regional Islamic groups.
* Made inroads in taking back territory in Afghanistan.
* Adapted its financial support system, making it more difficult to detect.
Just last week, US officials warned Americans against traveling to Saudi Arabia, as they'd received "credible" information about plans for an attack on US interests there. And the arrest last week of another key Al Qaeda member, along with five lower-level operatives in Pakistan, reportedly broke up a plot to fly an airplane into the US Consulate in Karachi. The US has also nabbed four other high-level Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan and is interrogating them in an undisclosed location.
But intelligence officials and experts on terror also point out that Al Qaeda never carried out spectacular attacks, like the 9/11 attacks or the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa, in less than two- year intervals. Many of those attacks were in planning stages for more than four years. That has officials worried about what may now be in the planning stages.
The European intelligence report, in a segment addressing the March arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, states: "We have so far been unable to identify a successor to the operations and planning chief. …