Experts See Major Shift in Al Qaeda’s Strategy

Times Staff Writers

A spate of suicide bombings in several countries illustrates that Al Qaeda has survived by mutating into a more decentralized network relying on local allies to launch more frequent attacks on varied targets, experts say.

In bombings from Turkey to Morocco, experts say, evidence suggests that Al Qaeda provided support through training, financing or ideological inspiration to local extremists. Through an evolving and loose alliance of semiautonomous terrorist cells, the network has been able to export its violence and “brand name” with only limited involvement in the attacks themselves.

“Al Qaeda as an ideology is now stronger than Al Qaeda as an organization,” said Mustafa Alani of the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London. “What we are witnessing now is a major shift in Al Qaeda’s strategy. I believe it is successful. Now they are not on the defensive. They are on the offensive.”

A U.S.-led assault on Al Qaeda has left many of the network’s leaders dead, in jail or on the run. Still, counter-terrorism officials have linked Al Qaeda or its followers to a drumbeat of attacks in Russia, Indonesia, India, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and the Philippines, dating back to spring. Intent on maximizing the propaganda impact of its actions, the network has shifted from a single-minded focus on American interests to a broader mix including Jewish and Muslim targets.


Al Qaeda allegedly gave the direct order for some of the attacks, investigators say, including one in Indonesia and the May bombing of a residential compound in Riyadh, the Saudi Arabian capital. But in others, its local affiliates appeared to have operated more independently. The May suicide bombings in Casablanca, Morocco, are seen as a model of the network’s emerging strategy.

U.S. and Iraqi authorities say several suicide car bombings -- at an Italian military police base last week and at the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross and three Baghdad police stations in late October -- were the work of foreign Islamic extremists affiliated with Al Qaeda.

There is growing debate about who is responsible for attacks in Iraq. An array of insurgents, including forces loyal to former President Saddam Hussein, seek to end the U.S.-led occupation. Insurgents have hit a variety of targets -- from the United Nations headquarters to the Jordanian Embassy.

U.S. authorities say about 2,000 Islamic fighters from as far away as Sudan, Algeria and Afghanistan are playing a more prominent role in the insurgency and probably are teaming up with Hussein loyalists.

The U.S. presence in Iraq is being used by extremist leaders to rally their followers to jihad, or holy war, around the world.

Authorities in Turkey say twin car bombings that killed 25 people Saturday at two synagogues in Istanbul had Al Qaeda’s trademark methodology and were carried out by Turks who sympathized with the network and may have received training from it.

The global threat persists because of the years Al Qaeda spent “training the trainers” -- tens of thousands of operatives molded in the movement’s camps in Afghanistan. Many have returned to their homelands and are trying to whip local extremists into killing shape, U.S. and European counter-terrorism officials say.

This diaspora of holy warriors drives a new approach that contrasts with the Sept. 11 hijackings in the United States or the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Those attacks took years of planning, with videos of potential targets brought to the group’s leaders in Afghanistan for study. Such plots were executed by terrorists groomed in the camps and directed to their targets -- via phone, e-mail and messenger -- by network masterminds.

Al Qaeda has always been relatively decentralized and unstructured. But today it moves faster, inciting attacks that require less time, expertise or high-level supervision, said Matthew Levitt, a former FBI analyst and terrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“It was always a network of networks whose inner core would wait patiently for three to five years to carry out spectacular attacks,” Levitt said. “What’s different today is that it’s not clear they can conduct attacks with that kind of command and control. So to maintain relevancy, they gave the go-ahead: Do what you can, where you can, when you can. And they are targeting softer targets more frequently.”

The very name Al Qaeda, some experts say, has become shorthand for a larger jihad fed by the Sept. 11 attacks, the Iraq war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A top French counter-terrorism official cautioned against blaming Al Qaeda for every act of Islamic terrorism.

“We have to be prudent,” said Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere, the dean of France’s anti-terrorism magistrates. “These attacks are part of a climate, a planetary offensive. Al Qaeda is important. But there is too much of a tendency, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, to personalize the threat. It is not all [Osama] bin Laden, it is not all Al Qaeda.”

Although the planners of the Istanbul bombings have not been identified, a thread linking Islamic extremism in Turkey and Morocco are the associates of Abu Musab Zarqawi, an Al Qaeda chief of Palestinian-Jordanian descent. Zarqawi’s crew has been known to plot against Jewish targets and is high on the list of potential suspects in the Istanbul case, Levitt said.

This fall, Turkish police arrested a reputed Zarqawi associate: Abdelatif Mourafik, a Moroccan wanted in the suicide bombings that killed 45 people in Casablanca in May, according to Spanish investigators.

In Casablanca, as in a number of recent cases, the exact role of top Al Qaeda figures remains murky. But Western investigators regard the case as a model of the way Al Qaeda cobbles together global and local terrorism infrastructures.

The FBI and Spanish, Italian and French police have worked closely with Moroccan investigators on the Casablanca case. The bombings, which claimed Spanish, French and Italian victims along with Moroccans, were Morocco’s worst terrorist attack.

The strategy teamed a handful of holy warriors trained in the Afghan camps with raw local recruits. One expert calls them “Kleenex kamikazes,” young men who are rapidly radicalized, used and then discarded.

The 12 suicide bombers came from a primitive extremist group based in a Casablanca slum. Most of them were in their early 20s, uneducated and unknown to Morocco’s tough security forces.

The bombers were told their targets only the night before, investigators say. Two attack teams found few victims at a Jewish cemetery and a Jewish community center that had closed for Friday night Sabbath. Yet the bombers set off their charges anyway, killing themselves and the few others present.

The other targets were a luxury hotel, a Jewish-owned Italian restaurant and a Spanish restaurant popular with upscale Moroccans. The selection of targets reflected the puritanical mentality of local extremists: symbols of Judaism and Spain (a prominent U.S. ally) and places where the elite went to cavort, in the terrorists’ minds, with Westerners.

Police discovered that one slain bomber had carried a detonator in each hand, the Spanish investigator said. One detonator triggered the explosives he carried in his backpack, while the other was wired to the backpack-bomb of a second attacker.

The ringleaders were unsure that the second bomber had the nerve to set off the blast, so they entrusted the task of detonating both bombs to the more motivated terrorist, the investigator said.

The youthful Moroccans had unusual foreign contacts. Their ideologue was an imam who divided his time between Morocco and a mosque in Hamburg, Germany, that had been frequented by suspects involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. One of the bombers, Abderahim Belkaid, called an associate in Syria the night before he died, the Italian official said.

“Casablanca was 99% local,” the Spanish investigator said. “But there was, it appears, external inspiration. Either it was direct -- that is, someone connected to Al Qaeda gave an order -- or it was indirect: People trained in the camps did it following a general line of instructions from Al Qaeda.”

A similar pattern can be found halfway around the world in Indonesia, a high-risk zone where a suicide car bombing killed 12 people at the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in August. Police blame the attack on Jemaah Islamiah, a Southeast Asian terrorist group cultivated by Al Qaeda.

The group was responsible for the double suicide bombing of Bali nightclubs that killed 202 people last year.

Al Qaeda contributed at least $45,000 to finance the Marriott bombing through a man known as Hambali, a top operative of the network who also was Jemaah Islamiah’s operations chief. He was arrested in Thailand in August after the Marriott bombing.

The resurgent global menace leads critics to assert that the U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have boomeranged by scattering Al Qaeda’s forces, making them harder to detect, and inspiring like-minded extremists.

“I think it [U.S. strategy] has backfired,” said Alani, of the London defense studies institute. “There is no evidence they can cope effectively with these groups.”

On the other hand, some U.S. and European officials see signs of weakness as inexperienced, improvised terrorists turn to soft targets. Even in a diminished condition, Al Qaeda has shown how effectively it can harvest the seeds of hate, said Olivier Roy of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris.

“It’s a movement that functions by franchise,” Roy said. “You find a local group like the Casablanca group who exist all over, who are radicalized and controlled by intermediaries. Al Qaeda gives a general attack order, and then it’s not really important if the attack is rational. Casablanca was not rational in many aspects.... The real message was in the suicide, not in the targets. It was necessary to strike fear.”


Rotella reported from Paris and Paddock from Baghdad.



Spreading terror

Since the Al Qaeda-sponsored attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September 2001, terrorists have carried out attacks around the world. Many of them have been attributed to Al Qaeda or its affiliates.


April 11: Suicide bomber kills 21 at a Tunisian synagogue on the island of Djerba. Al Qaeda claims responsibility.

June 14: A car bomb explodes outside the U.S. Consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, killing 12 Pakistanis. An unknown group, Al Qanoon (“The Law”), claims responsibility for the attack.

Oct. 12: More than 200 people, including seven Americans, are killed in two nightclub bombings on the island of Bali. The terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah is blamed.

Oct. 28: American diplomat Laurence Foley is shot in Amman, Jordan. Security forces subsequently link suspected affiliates of Al Qaeda to the slaying.

Nov. 28: Suicide bombers kill at least 16 at an Israeli-operated beach resort in Mombasa, Kenya. A previously unknown group, the Army of Palestine, takes credit for the act, but experts say it bears the marks of an Al Qaeda assault.



March 4: In the southern Philippines, the bombing of an airport terminal, plus others on April 2 (a crowded wharf) and May 11 (a public market) kill at least 46 people. Authorities blame Islamic extremists with links to Al Qaeda.

May 12: Three compounds in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, known to house Americans and other Westerners as well as Saudis, are attacked by suicide bombers. Nine Americans are among the 35 killed. U.S. officials say the Al Qaeda network is to blame.

May 16: Suicide bombers kill more than 40 and wound 100 in downtown Casablanca, Morocco. European law enforcement officials suggest that it is the work of Al Qaeda.

Aug. 5: A minivan explodes at a hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, killing 12 and wounding 150. Authorities suspect Jemaah Islamiah, a part of the Al Qaeda network.

Nov. 8: Bombs explode in a residential compound housing mostly Arabs in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, killing 17 and wounding more than 120. No one claims responsibility, but top U.S. officials blame Al Qaeda.

Nov. 12: A truck bomb kills more than 30 at a military police base in Nasiriyah, Iraq. Al Qaeda is suspected.

Nov. 15: Car bombs explode at two synagogues in Istanbul, Turkey, killing 25. An Israeli security source suggests that it is the work of an Al Qaeda affiliate.

Sources: Associated Press, Reuters, Scripps Howard News Service - Researched by Times graphics reporters Tom Reinken and John Tyrrell