Global security: Terrorism network puts down local roots





By Mark Huband, Security Correspondent

Financial Times, 26 January 2005

When a distant relative of the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh was fatally shot and stabbed as he cycled to work in Amsterdam last November, a chain of events was unleashed that has transformed perceptions of the threat to the west from global terrorism.

Popular anger at the killing of Theo van Gogh led to mosques in various parts of the Netherlands being vandalised, and churches being attacked in a series of tit-for-tat reprisals.

While the government sought to contain the fallout from the apparent failure of the country’s long-established policy of multiculturalism, the Dutch security service uncovered an Islamic extremist cell with which Mr van Gogh’s alleged killer was loosely associated.

The unravelling of the network has revealed the extent to which Muslim extremists in Europe remain intent on and able to plan significant terrorist attacks.

But the Dutch inquiry also revealed aspects of the radicalisation process within Europe’s indigenous Muslim population.

This process has spawned new terrorist cells, which counter-terrorism officials worldwide now see as rooted in local rather than global organisations. It is from within these communities that the ongoing threat to the west is seen as most likely to come.

“If you look at al-Qaeda’s initial aims, they see themselves as the vanguard: ignite the fuse, and let events take off,” says a senior European intelligence officer. “Osama bin Laden has succeeded in this aim. Other groups are taking off that have no real link to al-Qaeda. Its strategy is to remain a vanguard. It can’t hope to control these various disparate groups, but they can soft-pedal on their own attacks by getting other people to do them for them.”

He adds: “The next attack that al-Qaeda will claim big-time ownership for will be bigger then September 11. Just because we haven’t seen recent al-Qaeda activity, doesn’t mean that they don’t keep the objective of doing something really massive.”

An attack larger than the September 11, 2001 onslaught against New York and Washington is seen by intelligence and counter-terrorism officials as likely to involve a radiological or chemical weapon. The “terrorising” impact of an unconventional weapon would be enormous.

However, say security officials, al-Qaeda will want a large number of casualties in addition to a high level of fear.

“Many senior al-Qaeda figures have been killed or arrested since 9/11 but, although the organisation has been damaged, it retains the capability to mount terrorist attacks on western interests,” Eliza Manningham-Buller, the director general of the UK Security Service, MI5, told UK business leaders in November 2004.

She added: “‘Al-Qaeda’ has become shorthand for other terrorist groups or networks that – inspired by al-Qaeda’s successes, and in imitation of it – are now planning attacks”.

Intelligence assessments of the capability and strategy of terrorist groups affiliated to al-Qaeda, combine factual evidence and vague though consistent impressions of the groups’ ambitions, with a process of gauging the influence of global political events on the recruitment of new operatives.

“We have reached a certain level of understanding of the network, but we are really not able to draw an organisational chart. We don’t really know its nature, though I do have the impression that the network is growing,” says a senior European counter-terrorism official.

But the growth of indigenous cells and localised networks within western countries, south-east Asia, North Africa and the US, is a phenomenon that counter-terrorism officials see as organisationally separate from the growth of militancy in areas where conflicts have given radicals the chance to fight jihad.

“You always have a major jihad field. Iraq is really the major jihad field right now. It’s the focus,” says Mustafa Alani, a terrorism expert at the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai.

“It doesn’t mean that there are no other operations, but the fight with the US and British is the major focus.

“At one stage, the focus was Afghanistan, but now it’s Iraq in terms of military conflict. But in terms of terrorist operations, other places remain open. Iraq is not a terrorist operation. It is a military operation,” he says.

While the Iraq conflict lasts, it is expected to draw in some of the terrorist resources – particularly people – that might have been used elsewhere. However, it is also being seen as a training ground for fighters who may then disperse to other parts of the world.

According to a senior intelligence officer responsible for following their activities, some militants have left Iraq for other parts of the Middle East, central Asia and Europe.

He says: “They have security experience, such as how to lose people who are trailing them, as well as having the qualities of guerrilla fighters.

“They also know how to do surveillance. “It’s too early to know what their role is. But the skills they have gained are of major concern.”

The combination of emerging indigenous cells and a new group of fighters trained in Iraq, is transforming the terrorist landscape.

The Madrid train bombings on March 11 2004, were planned and executed by a group of Moroccans living in Spain who had little or no need for external guidance or resources, senior intelligence officials now say.

The scale and planning of the Madrid attack exposed serious weaknesses in the Global War on Terror, which has focused heavily on global financial networks but has to overcome bureaucratic hurdles and different national counter-terrorism strategies in order to confront the emerging threat.

“We know that al-Qaeda can no longer do what it did. But all the local groups can do things on their own,” says Yassir al-Sirri, an Egyptian Islamist dissident living in London. The people in the small groups are working without instructions. The order has been given: all Muslim groups must do something.


© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.