Despite being the most hunted movement in history, Al Qaeda and its associateorganisations will pose a significant threat in 2003. Al Qaeda per se willfragment, decentralise, regroup in five zones of the world, work withlike?minded groups, select a wider range of targets, focus on economic targetsand population centres, and conduct most attacks in the global south. Althoughthe group will be constrained from conducting coordinated simultaneous attacksagainst high profile symbolic or strategic targets in the West, Al Qaeda withits regional counterparts will conduct attacks aimed at Western targets in Asia, Africa, Middle East, and even Latin America. Despite heavy losses, including the likely captureor death of its core and penultimate leaders, Al Qaeda’s anti?Western universaljihad ideology inculcated among the politicised and radicalised Muslims, willsustain support for Islamism, Islamist political parties and Islamist terroristgroups. With the detection, disruption, and degradation of its human andmaterial infrastructure, Al Qaeda may evolve and survive as a state?of?mindamong Islamist territorial and migrant pockets. With a skewed US Middle Easternpolicy, Islamist support for political violence will grow, prompting terroristgroups to conduct mass casualty attacks, especially suicide bombings of economictargets and population centres.
The New Year will witness the following key terrorist trends and patterns:
Since October 7, 2001, when US led coalition forces began to dismantle AlQaeda’s state of the art operational and training infrastructure, its intentionto attack has not diminished though its capability to attack has gravelysuffered. With the US workingwith several Middle Eastern and Asian Governments, Al Qaeda’s strength has beendepleted to a third of its rank and file, especially with the loss or captureof its key leaders and experienced operatives. Therefore, the group isincreasingly probing targets that can be attacked with least effort and leastcost. In keeping with its doctrine of repeating its successes, Al Qaeda and itsassociate groups are increasingly adopting the tactic of suicide attacksagainst soft targets.
While Al Qaeda’s priority will be to attack US targets, it only has theresources and opportunity to attack US allies and friends. With diminished AlQaeda assets and hardened US and Israeli diplomatic targets, the group willattempt to mount attacks against British, French, German, Italian, Canadian,Australian and possibly other European and Japanese targets. Throughout 2002,Al Qaeda or its associate groups killed German tourists in Djerba, Tunisia; Frenchnaval technicians in Karachi, Pakistan;Australians and Westerners in Bali, Indonesia; andIsraelis in Mombassa, Kenya. Osama binLaden’s pronouncements in October and November 2002 will be the best guide tounfolding Al Qaeda plans in 2003. As such, more effort is needed to track andtarget Al Qaeda experts moving worldwide and disrupt them from coordinatingattacks together with Al Qaeda associate groups with which it had sharedideology, finance and training during the last decade in Afghanistan and inother conflict zones.
Countermeasures, especially target hardening, by law enforcement and protectiveservices of vulnerable government personnel and infrastructure have forced AlQaeda to focus on economic targets and population centres. Hardening ofgovernment targets will displace the threat to softer targets making civiliansprone to terrorist attack. Economic targets, especially the tourist and thehotel industry, will suffer from terrorism. Churches, synagogues, and othernon?Islamic institutions as well as trade and investment will remainparticularly vulnerable. Similarly, hardening of land aviation targets willshift the threat to maritime targets particularly to commercial shipping. Dueto the difficulty of hijacking aircraft to ram them against targets, Al Qaedawill acquire and employ hand? held Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs). Ifappropriate and immediate countermeasures are not taken to target the Al Qaedashipping network, SAMs under Al Qaeda control held in the Pakistan, Kashmir, Afghanistantheatre, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Horn of Africa will find its way toEast Asia and to Europe, and possibly even to North America. Other groupsoperationally and ideologically unconnected to Al Qaeda will learn from Al Qaedatechnologies, tactics, and techniques.
With US security forces and the intelligence community targeting Al Qaeda’snerve centre in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Al Qaeda will decentralise even further.While the organisers of attacks will remain in Pakistan and itsimmediate neighbourhood, its operatives will travel back and forth coordinatingwith Al Qaeda nodes in the south. To make its presence felt, Al Qaeda willincreasingly rely on its global terrorist network of like minded groups inSoutheast Asia, South Asia, Horn of Africa, Middle East, and the Caucasus tostrike at its enemies. Already, attacks in Kenya, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Kuwait and Yemen seek tocompensate for the loss and lack of space and opportunity to operate in Afghanistan. Its operativeswill work together with Jemaah Islamiyah (JI: Southeast Asia), Al Ittihad al Islami (Horn of Africa), ChechenMujahidin (Khattab faction: Caucasus), TunisianCombatants Group (Middle East),Jayish?e?Mohommad (South Asia) and othergroups it trained and financed in the past decade. In addition to its ownmembers, Al Qaeda will operate through the Salafi Group for Call and Combat(GSPC) and Takfir Wal Hijra – two groups it had infiltrated in Europe and North America. With the transfer of terrorist technology andexpertise from the centre to the periphery, the attacks by the associate groupsof Al Qaeda will pose a threat as great as Al Qaeda.
Although attacking inside North America, Europe, Australasia and Israel remains apriority, the measures and countermeasures taken by these governments will makeit difficult for Al Qaeda to mount an operation in the West. Al Qaeda finds itless costly to operate in parts of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East where thereis a lack of security controls. Therefore, most attacks will be against Westerntargets located in the global south. While focusing on Western targets willremain a priority, Al Qaeda will continue to conduct operations against Muslimrulers and regimes supporting the US-led “war on terror.” The physical securityof Pakistani and Afghan leaders Musharaaf and Karzai will remain particularlyvulnerable and their regimes will come under sustained political challenges.While a number of Pakistani groups fighting in Kashmir will comeunder greater control of Al Qaeda, the group working together with thesurviving elements of the Taliban will develop a clandestine network inside Afghanistan to conductguerrilla warfare, terrorism, and political assassination.
For greater impact, Al Qaeda will conduct coordinated simultaneous attacksagainst symbolic, high prestige or strategic targets with the intention ofinflicting maximum damage to human and physical infrastructure. While Al Qaedawill be constrained from mounting multiple attacks in the global north, whereits resources and operations are under strain and scrutiny, Al Qaeda and itsassociate groups are still able to mount multiple operations in the globalsouth where they have greater leverage, space, and time to operate. Forinstance, JI attacked Sari and Kuta clubs and the US consulatein Bali, Indonesia, on October 12, 2002; and AlQaeda attacked an Israeli owned hotel and aircraft in Mombassa, Kenya, on November 29, 2002.
Al Qaeda has suffered with the arrest of nearly 3000 organisers, operatives andsupporters in 98 countries from October 2001. With the increase in pressure, AlQaeda is increasingly depending on its associate groups to conduct attacks.Traditionally, Al Qaeda with better-trained, more experienced and highlycommitted operatives, wanted to attack more difficult targets especiallystrategic targets and leave the easier and tactical targets to its associategroups. Today, with Al Qaeda operatives wo
rking closely with them, thelethality of the attacks conducted by the associate groups of Al Qaeda isincreasing. As Bali demonstrated, the attacksconducted by the associate groups of Al Qaeda can be as lethal as the attacksconducted by Al Qaeda itself. With attacks conducted by Al Qaeda’s associategroups posing a threat as great as Al Qaeda, the theatre of war will widen. US assistance,presence and influence will grow in the Muslim World generating wide-rangingreactions.
With the loss of Afghanistan as a“liberated theatre of jihad,” Islamists will seek to create new theatres. DrAyman Zawahiri, Osama’s deputy and designated successor and principalstrategist of Al Qaeda, considers Afghanistan and Chechnya as the onlytwo liberated theatres of jihad. Already due to the difficulty of movement ofrecruits and flow of support from Islamist migrant pockets in the West and inthe Middle East to Afghanistan, there hasbeen a partial diversion of support to Chechnya. Althoughthere is a significant reserve of Afghan?trained active and sleeper terroristsin the West, terrorists entering the West to attack Western targets may betrained in a number of theatres especially Chechnya. With AlQaeda fragmenting, several other groups will take over the role of waging auniversal jihad. More territorial Islamist groups will espouse universalagendas and more Muslim separatist groups will become vulnerable to penetrationby Islamist groups.
Al Qaeda will be operating across the technological spectrum but is likely touse low?tech high impact attacks, especially civilian infrastructure to attackcivilian society and critical infrastructure. With greater border controls,members and associate members of Al Qaeda will use what can be readilypurchased off-the-shelf, especially from pharmacies, chemist shops, andhardware stores. Al Qaeda members will live off the environment and turncommercially available material into weapons. Al Qaeda’s Tunisian memberconducted a suicide attack against the oldest Jewish synagogue in Djerba,Tunisia, using a LPG truck; JI used a consignment of chlorate purchased fromthe port city of Surabaya in Indonesia against targets in Bali; and 9?11hijackers used passenger aircraft against America’s icons. The latter attack,an Al Qaeda detainee said was “like using your own finger to prick your eye.”Using multiple identities, Al Qaeda members will travel to target countries,receive instructions, plan and prepare attacks through the Internet, and attacktargets. They will generate support from low-level crime, organised crime,infiltrated charities, and from politicised and radicalised segments of theirmigrant and diaspora communities.
With the 9?11 mastermind and head of the military committee of Al Qaeda, KhalidSheikh Mohammad, assuming a central role in the planning and preparation ofattacks, his persona will be reflected in the attacks. First, mass casualtyattacks, second, the abundant use of suicide terrorism, third, bombings, andfourth, assassination. As mass casualty attacks need a large number ofoperatives, greater resources, and planning over a long period of time, Al Qaedawill be able to conduct fewer attacks but they are likely to become spectacularor theatrical attacks. Assassination will be used more frequently althoughsuicide bombings will be the most predominant form of attack. As suicideattacks are very difficult to disrupt in the execution phase, 2003 will see thetactic of suicide terrorism being used more widely. As Al Qaeda maximisessuccesses and partial successes of attacks and minimises its failures, suicideattacks will become increasingly common. Although Al Qaeda’s long term andsustained interest to use chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear agentshas not diminished, conventional terrorism will remain the preferred mode ofattack.
US policies towards the Middle East, especiallythe unilateral US threat toinvade Iraq and theIsraeli?Palestinian issue, will strengthen support for Islamism, Islamistpolitical parties and terrorist groups. US’s skewed foreign policy willcontinue to pose a significant terrorist threat to Western interests both athome and overseas. In many countries, Islamism will move from the periphery tothe centre, making it difficult for many governments to openly support theUS-led “war against terrorism.” With support for Islamism rising, Islamistswill campaign either politically or violently or both in Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia, and otheremerging democracies. In addition to well?organised groups, individualterrorists will mount operations, similar to the shooting at the El Al counterat the Los Angeles Airport on America’s Independence Day 2002. With more mediareports about Islam, the Muslim public will become more aware of Islam. Thenumber of Muslims directly supporting violence will remain very small but therewill be more support for a Muslim way of life, especially the implementation ofSharia laws. Furthermore, the need to wage jihad in support of their sufferingbrethren will rise among politicised and radicalised segments of the Muslims.
If the threat posed by Islamism is to be countered and the life span of Islamistterrorist groups is to be shortened, in the medium and long term, the currentWestern, especially US approach of 95% military and 5% ideological warfare willhave to be reserved. To reduce the space for the Al Qaeda to survive and grow,the international community must develop a multi-pronged, multi-dimensional,multi-agency, and multi-jurisdictional approach against terrorism. Failure todevelop a comprehensive long-term strategic response will mean Al Qaedachanging shape, surviving and continuing the fight.
Just like 2002, the new year will be a year of experience and learning both forgovernment law enforcement and intelligence agencies. With the wideracknowledgement that there is no standard textbook for fighting Al Qaeda, itwill be a learning process where new structures and institutions will have tobe built and shaped to fight a rapidly evolving but cunning and ruthless foe,willing to kill and die. To win, governments will have to repeat theirsuccesses and build upon their successes.
In its founding charter, Al Qaeda Al Sulbah (The Solid Base) is defined as the“spearhead of Islam” and the “pioneering vanguard of the Islamic movements.”The existing and emerging Islamist groups armed with the Al Qaeda ideology willpose a continuous terrorist threat. Although Al Qaeda as a physical entity willbe relegated to history, it has at least partially accomplished its primaryrole of “showing the way” to other groups especially the need to go beyond alimited territorial agenda and wage a universal jihad. The momentum Al Qaedahas so successfully unleashed will spawn and sustain a dozen existing andemerging Islamist groups in the immediate to mid term.
This articlewas published under IDSS Commentaries in January 2003
The viewsexpressed in this perspective are entirely the author’s own and not that of theInstitute of Defence and Strategic Studies