By Michael Hirsh, Rod Nordland,
Al Qaeda`s New Threat
Bin Laden`s network is broken, but the terrorists are adapting. They`re looking for new ways to sow chaos and war
June 10 issue - It wasn`t a small funeral. It wasn`t even especially secretive or rushed, considering that the world`s mightiest military was hunting many of those who attended.
On a recent spring day in Pakistan, top Taliban officials held a kind of reunion, al fresco. Chatting amiably in the middle of the Jalozai Afghan refugee camp about 12 miles outside Peshawar were some of Osama bin Laden`s chief protectors: the Taliban`s deputy foreign minister, Abdul Rahman Zaid, and a top Defense Ministry official, Gen. Jalil Yousafzai, among others. They had gathered to honor an old Soviet-era "mujahed" who had died of TB in the camp. In a speech witnessed by a NEWSWEEK reporter, Pakistani Islamic fundamentalist Samia al-Haq eulogized the departed and tartly noted the presence of an "envoy" of the government of Pakistan. (The intelligence official later let the Taliban officials leave, unmolested.) Interviewed afterward about bin Laden`s whereabouts, ex-Taliban Defense official Mualvi Agha Jan replied defiantly, "Osama is a true patriot, and despite their all-out efforts, the Americans are unable to catch him and never will be able to."
Changing methods, new targets
What`s frightening is that all this open-air dialogue took place in a country that George W. Bush has described as America`s most stalwart ally in the war on terror. Other Taliban are now living comfortably in the border cities of Peshawar and Quetta, and dozens of surviving Qaeda operatives have infiltrated most major cities of Pakistan. The quicksilver flow of Qaeda and Taliban operatives into Pakistan is the freshest evidence yet that the antiterror campaign has entered a new phase. And that Americans may face a new kind of war: one in which Al Qaeda, ever opportunistic even on the run, is changing its methods and seeking out new targets. Nuclear-armed Pakistan, for starters. All of a sudden, the hunt for terrorists has merged with the race to avert a major war in South Asia, one that could go nuclear if it happens.
U.S. authorities are increasingly fearful that fleeing Qaeda operatives and their Pakistani sympathizers, seething with vengeful thoughts, could spark the tinderbox tensions between Pakistan and India. "They would be delighted if they could provoke war," says retired Pakistani Lt. Gen. Talat Masood. "The resulting conflict would unleash the worst form of Islamic militancy in South Asia." Bush himself felt compelled to warn last week that the terrorists "shouldn`t think they`re going to gain any advantage as a result of any... talk of conflict between India and Pakistan, because we`re still going to hunt them down."
But Pakistan`s junta-installed leader, Pervez Musharraf-who must balance powerful Islamic pressure groups with Western pressure to curb them-is letting many of the extremists go free. U.S. authorities fear that the West`s unprecedented diplomatic offensive to tamp down Indo-Pak tensions-including separate trips planned this week by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage-could be undone if Qaeda terrorists inspire or orchestrate another major attack by Pakistani militants on India. Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, angry over what he sees as U.S. coddling of Musharraf, has pledged a "decisive" response if that happens. As a result, national-security officials in the White House say the India-Pakistan issue has leapt to the top of America`s foreign-policy agenda. Last week Bush was unusually critical of his ally Musharraf, demanding that he keep his word to crack down on terrorist groups in his country, especially those who were stirring up trouble in the long-disputed province of Kashmir: "He must stop the incursions across the Line of Control" dividing Kashmir between India and Pakistan, Bush said. "He must do so. He said he would do so."
U.S. officials insist that, as of now, little evidence exists that Al Qaeda has a direct role in the Kashmir conflict. But the ties between Al Qaeda and Kashmir Islamic militants run deep. During the bin Laden era, at least five Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan were devoted to Kashmiri mujahedin. One of them, the Khalid bin Walid Camp near Khowst, was operated expressly for training Kashmiri suicide bombers. Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba, the two most militant Kashmiri groups, both have long had ties to Al Qaeda. Both sent fighters to the front in Afghanistan, for instance (200 Kashmiris were on a roster seized from Al-Badr training camp immediately after the Taliban fell). Indian intelligence sources say that while terrorists killed in encounters with Indian troops are mostly Kashmiris and Pakistanis, a few bodies of Afghan militants trained by Al Qaeda have also been recovered.
The latest news from the terror front is hardly all grim. On paper, the overall tally against the Taliban and Al Qaeda is impressive. According to terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna, 16 of Al Qaeda`s top 25 leaders have been killed or captured, while the Taliban has lost 21 out of 27. Francis Taylor, the State Department`s counterterrorism chief, says that some 1,600 suspects have been arrested in 95 nations worldwide (about half have been released, but many are still under surveillance). Al Qaeda`s financial networks are also badly disrupted. Meanwhile the West`s swift mediation in South Asia-a kind of tag-team diplomacy with U.S. missions following hard on the heels of British and European ones-may be succeeding. Late last week Musharraf called for a "no-war pact," while Indian officials toned down their rhetoric.
And in Pakistan, despite the open defiance of the ex-Taliban, Musharraf is still hunting down hard-core Qaeda terrorists, U.S. officials say. "The number of U.S. personnel in Pakistan-CIA, FBI and Special Forces-would astound you," a senior Pakistani diplomat told NEWSWEEK. The diplomat says the number of raids on Al Qaeda is much higher than has been reported-up to 50 in the last several months, including 16 raids the day bin Laden`s No. 3, Abu Zubaydah, was arrested in Faisalabad in the single biggest catch of recent months. But an administration official also said that the U.S. government`s ability to operate in the country remains constricted, especially as Pakistan prepares to shift some 8,000 troops from the anti-Qaeda hunt to counter a 750,000-man Indian buildup along the border.
The upshot is that, while terrorists can`t operate as freely in Pakistan as they once did in Afghanistan, many may never be caught either. "I`m worried that Al Qaeda makes Pakistan its new base," says a senior U.S. official. "And that has consequences for both Afghanistan and for terrorism globally." The immediate danger is an assassination attempt against Musharraf and a destabilization of his regime. The longer-term and even more dire threat is that terrorists could get their hands on Islamabad`s nukes, especially in a war-devastated Pakistan. Pakistani officials insist Pakistan`s 20 to 50 nuclear warheads are still disassembled and safe. "You can`t point to a single incident of nuclear trafficking or nuclear theft in Pakistan," the Pakistani diplomat says, comparing the country favorably to Russia.
It isn`t just in Pakistan that Al Qaeda is mutating into something new. Today counterterrorism authorities worldwide no longer confront a centrally operated "Terror Inc."; they face an even murkier network of enemies. Qaeda survivors and sympathetic terrorists appear to be banding into smaller groups, acting largely on their own, animated only by a common hatred of America. The new focus is more localized: Pakistan; the U.S.-sponsored government in Afghanistan; or American bases, personnel and buildings worldwide, depending on whatever opportunity arises.
This is what Hans Beth, head of the antiterror division of Germany`s foreign intelligence service, calls "the new Al Qaeda": a phenomenon more similar to the diffuse threat that existed before bin Laden turned terror into a globalized operation in the late `90s. Typical of this transformation was the bombing of a synagogue on the Tunisian resort island of Jerba in April, in which 14 German tourists and five others died. The attack, Beth says, suggests "a temporary change of strategy" for Al Qaeda. Bin Laden`s network is now focusing on what Beth calls "attacks of lesser complexity" like the grenade murder of five churchgoers in Islamabad, including two Americans; the killing of 11 French workers and two Pakistanis in Karachi, and what may have been an attempt on the U.S. Embassy in Rome in February.
Bin Laden may no longer be supplying directions and funding, but his ethos of enmity lives on. And while loose operatives may be somewhat less able to mount a September 11-style attack-or, everyone`s nightmare scenario, an atrocity involving weapons of mass destruction-the breakdown of the network has made already-elusive terrorists even harder to track. "It`s amorphous," says ex-CIA agent Robert Baer. "It`s like trying to pin a blob of mercury."
Seed money for terror
The change in tactics points up the terrorists` central characteristic: their fluid adaptability. In the past bin Laden acted like a venture capitalist, sending seed money, for instance, to Y2K plotters in Jordan who told him Jews and Americans were frequenting Amman. On the run (or perhaps dead), he`s far less able to play that role: a similar plea by Singaporean terrorists to target buses carrying U.S. sailors went unanswered late last year. (U.S. investigators in Afghanistan found what seemed to be a videotaped "pitch" from Singaporean extremists in the ruined home of Muhammad Atef, bin Laden`s No. 2, who was killed by U.S.-led airstrikes outside the Afghan capital.)
As a result, despite the immediate threat to Pakistan, the next attack may even have little to do with Al Qaeda it-self. Even as Bush continues to publicly identify Al Qaeda as the chief threat, in private U.S. officials are increasingly siding with intelligence officials who have long insisted that the number of sworn members of Al Qaeda worldwide has been grossly exaggerated, and may be fewer than 200. In fact, most of the thousands of recruits who went through the Afghan training camps were would-be jihadis who wanted to help fight there, or to return to their domestic insurgencies. The new danger is that in a post-Qaeda era, less-identifiable groups will multiply beyond any accounting.
Yet the new terror is not completely disorganized-nor can we ever return to a pre-bin Laden world. During his long run in Afghanistan, bin Laden and his minions planted seeds of knowledge-about bombmaking, intelligence gathering, even the use of chemicals and poisons-to acolytes from around the globe. The terrorists also have intimate knowledge of U.S. security methods, making overseas trips like those of Rumsfeld and Armitage a growing concern. An American law-enforcement alert, NEWSWEEK has learned, notes that captured Qaeda security manuals mirror to an unnerving degree the safety precautions taken for senior U.S. and foreign officials, including ambush-evasion techniques for motorcades. "Al Qaeda, as an organization, has been crippled," says a top Arab intelligence officer. "But there are still many mad operatives operating who will take matters in their own hands for revenge. When and where, I don`t know." Nor does anybody else, perhaps not even Al Qaeda.
With Ron Moreau, Sami Yousefzai and Zahid Hussein in Pakistan, Mark Hosenball, Daniel Klaidman, Roy Gutman and John Barry in Washington, Christopher Dickey in Paris, Melinda Liu in Singapore, Tara Pepper in London, Stefan Theil in Berlin and bureau reports
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