Few clues to the thoughts of the extremists




By Mark Huband, Security Correspondent, in Istanbul

Financial Times, 21 November 2003

The bombing of the British consulate and the offices of the HSBC bank in Istanbul on Thursday has intensified efforts to establish whether the wave of terrorist attacks in countries ranging from Saudi Arabia to Morocco in the past six months are random or part of a definable terrorist strategy.

Clues to the thoughts of the Islamist extremist groups assumed to be responsible for the attacks have remained elusive. Equally, no accurate picture has emerged from intelligence gathering of the operational links between local terrorist cells and the al-Qaeda network.

Security services in several countries had expected the efforts to halt terrorist finance and other aspects of al-Qaeda’s global operations, to lead eventually to counter-terrorism strategy becoming a more localised law enforcement operation as the global network was dismembered.

The question now facing investigators is whether Islamists linked or sympathetic to al-Qaeda are connected by a common strategy, even with the terrorist network now dispersed and apparently no longer controlled from the top.

Some analysts say a pattern in the attacks may now be emerging, providing clues as to what may be possible to anticipate.

“They are targeting Americans [and their allies] in order to bring them into conflict with Muslims,” said Saad al-Fagui, a UK-based Saudi dissident who follows al-Qaeda’s activities.

“They were extremely happy with the American involvement in Iraq, because they are feeling that they will not only kick the Americans out, but will embarrass them,” he said.

Weakening the US is seen by al-Qaeda as a way of weakening US allies in the Islamic world, of which Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Turkey are three of the most important, Mr al-Fagui said. The attacks this year in these countries have killed scores of Muslims caught up in attacks on foreign or – as in both Casablanca and Istanbul – Jewish targets.

The deaths of Muslims in the process of attacking these targets may have as its purpose the encouragement of Muslim resentment over the religious or business communities whose presence has ostensibly unleashed the violence. This in turn may be intended to encourage localised confrontation building on political tensions that are already present.

“They believe that any undermining of local regimes will contribute to a situation of chaos, and this improves the environment for al-Qaeda,” Mr al-Fagui said.

Security officials are uncertain as to how concerned the extremists are about the impact of Muslim deaths on their reputations.

“It would probably not be their intention to increase the number of Muslim casualties, though I think there is a view that if a target has been identified and anybody is in the way, it is hard luck,” said a senior western security official on Friday.

But even as Turkey reels from the impact of four bombings in a week, the political and religious issues that are firing the extremism remain potent even among those living close to the bombed sites, who could well have been victims.


© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008