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A war with no battlefield awaits Obama

Rotella is a Times staff writer.

Amid the focus on the wars that President-elect Barack Obama will inherit in Iraq and Afghanistan, a third conflict gets less attention: the shadow war against stateless networks of Islamic extremists.

Terrorism greeted the previous two presidents early in their terms. President Clinton faced the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and President Bush the world-changing attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“I fear Al Qaeda could try to test Obama,” said a top Italian anti-terrorism official, who asked not to be identified because of the issue’s sensitivity.

A weaker Al Qaeda, tighter U.S. borders and the apparent lack of U.S. support networks make a new strike on American soil unlikely, though not impossible, according to Western anti-terrorism officials. Instead, the foremost possible scenario is an attack on U.S. targets in Europe similar to the alleged plots against American troops in Germany last year and transatlantic flights from London in 2006.

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Security officials worry particularly about Al Qaeda recruits returning to Britain and other Western countries from training in Pakistan.

The new administration will also face the threat of attacks, training hubs and radicalization in locales varying from Somalia and Yemen to Western Europe, the front line for a new generation of homegrown militants, Western officials say.

As he takes office, Obama will inherit strong anti-terrorism alliances. Many European investigations grow out of shared U.S. intercepts of online communications, leads made possible because most Internet servers are based in the United States. Cross-border teamwork has driven cases such as the roundup this year in Barcelona of an alleged Pakistani terrorist cell that was infiltrated by a French undercover operative with the help of Spanish and American spies.

“Even during the worst times of diplomatic conflict over Iraq, close cooperation continued because it was in everybody’s interests,” said security consultant Louis Caprioli, former counter-terrorism chief of the DST, France’s lead intelligence agency.

But rifts endure. Although European security forces say they have gathered valuable intelligence from inmates at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, human rights issues concerning the island prison and the secret U.S. “rendition” program have caused bitter clashes.

In Italy, 26 Americans, most of them CIA operatives, are on trial in absentia, after being accused by anti-terrorism prosecutors of abducting an Egyptian cleric from Milan and flying him to Egypt, where he would be subject to harsh interrogation. Several top European officials have called for a more restrained American approach that emphasizes both the rule of law and equitable sharing of intelligence.

“It’s essential that we restore trust and the principle of solidarity in the distribution, use and exploitation of intelligence,” said Baltasar Garzon, a Spanish anti-terrorism magistrate.

Garzon and others welcome Obama’s promise to shut down Guantanamo. But they foresee a long, difficult process. Governments and international organizations will have to consider what to do with any suspected hard-core militants as well as the danger to those sent back to homelands that have records of rights abuse.

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“It’s absolutely necessary to show U.S. society and the world that things will change,” Garzon said. Guantanamo “is inhuman and must be closed, but meanwhile it should be under normal civilian control. Then we have to find places for all the inmates, either judging them in the U.S. with all guarantees, or in the countries where they broke the law.”

Obama, who had his first secret intelligence briefing as president-elect Thursday in Chicago, has called for U.S. forces to go after Al Qaeda leaders in northwest Pakistan if the government in Islamabad fails to do so.

An escalating campaign of U.S. airstrikes in northwest Pakistan this year has killed at least four leaders of Al Qaeda, which did not issue a video message before the American presidential election as it had in 2004. Experts predict that Bush will press the hunt for Osama bin Laden and his deputies in hope of a last-minute triumph before his term ends.

“It looks like they want to eliminate as many Al Qaeda figures as possible to go out with history on their side,” said former CIA officer Marc Sageman, now an academic and scholar-in-residence at the New York Police Department.

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“Al Qaeda has been on the ropes for a while. . . ,” he said. “There are not many of them: Maybe two dozen leaders, about 200 [veteran militants] who have been around since the 1980s. And it seems they are being picked off one by one.”

But Pakistani leaders complain that American airstrikes violate their country’s sovereignty and worsen instability in a nation beset by economic and security crises.

Looking elsewhere, experts cite some familiar threats and other new ones. An emerging concern: the Islamic Jihad Union, an offshoot of Al Qaeda that operates in the same semiautonomous tribal regions of northwest Pakistan. It allegedly directed a group of German converts and Turks, three of whom were arrested last year on suspicion of plotting to bomb U.S. military targets in Germany. Last month, German police asked for the public’s help in tracking down another Islamic Jihad Union-trained convert who is considered dangerous and has posted videos on Turkish websites.

“It is a splinter organization trying to make its mark,” Sageman said. “The only way to do that, to make their mark, is to do an attack. There is an internal rivalry among terror groups. The IJU wants to claim to be the new Al Qaeda.”

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Other hot spots include Yemen, the Sahel region of northern Africa, and war-torn Somalia, where an increasing number of foreign radicals go to train, officials said. Activity also has picked up in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia as the Balkans become a refuge for foreign militants who fought in Iraq, the Italian anti-terrorism official said.

Agencies have become adept at detecting plots in the making. But the new administration will inherit a persistent nightmare: self-radicalized cells that form with minimal links to established networks and strike without warning.

The Muslim doctors on trial for attempted bombings in London and Glasgow, Scotland, in 2007 illustrate such a scenario. Sageman says autonomous, Internet-driven groups are the threat of the future.

In the larger war of ideas, some experts say, Obama’s election serves as ammunition against extremist propaganda.

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“If the fact that the grandson of a Kenyan goatherd becomes president of the United States does not undermine the jihadi message that the United States is unjust and oppressive, I don’t know what will,” Sageman said.

Caprioli, for his part, says Islamic fundamentalists may see the president-elect, a Christian, as an apostate because he did not adopt his African family’s Muslim faith.

“They will judge him on his policies, not on his identity,” Caprioli said.

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rotella@latimes.com


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