For quite some time now, the analysis du jour among many terrorism experts (though not these guys or her, all of whom know far better) have been pushing the idea that al-Qaeda has been so broken up that the surviving leadership, wherever it is, doesn't pose that much of a threat to the United States since they figure what we're fighting is a social movement rather than an organization. This conception has been reasonably attractive to a rather disparate group of administration officials looking to point to signs of progress in the war on terrorism, the State Department (as it emphasizes State's traditional areas as a means of fighting the movement), and many now-former intelligence officials and experts eager to rail against the administration for having invaded on Iraq on the grounds that they were fighting using an outdated paradigm of measuring their success in terms of who they've taken out inside the organization rather than recognizing the danger they'd created by inflaming the Angry Arab Street™.
As the Post summarizes:
The back-to-back nature of the deadly attacks in Egypt and London, as well as similarities in the methods used, suggests that the al Qaeda leadership may have given the orders for both operations and is a clear sign that Osama bin Laden and his deputies remain in control of the network, according to interviews with counterterrorism analysts and government officials in Europe and the Middle East ...
But intelligence officials and terrorist experts said they suspect that bin Laden or his lieutenants may have sponsored both operations from afar, as well as other explosions that have killed hundreds of people in Spain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Morocco since 2002. The hallmarks in each case: multiple bombings aimed at unguarded, civilian targets that are designed to scare Westerners and rattle the economy.
The officials and analysts also said the recent attacks indicate that the nerve center of the original al Qaeda network remains alive and well, despite the fact that many leaders have been killed or captured since the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings in the United States. Bin Laden may be in hiding, the officials and analysts said, and much is still unknown about the network. But they added that his organization remains fully capable of orchestrating attacks worldwide by recruiting local groups to do its bidding.
And Gunaratna predicted all of this on pages 233-238 of the 2002 edition of his book for those of us who were paying attention.
I suspect that one could add more than a few attacks onto that list, but the point is that all of these sophisticated, well-planned terrorist attack do not just emerge via spontaneous generation. Nor are these simply the reactionary by-products of Muslim rage over Iraq as some have sought to paint them out as - like I said, these groups do not just appear out of thin air. The London bombers may well have been pissed over Iraq, but they would never have exploded if not for all the help from the Lashkar-e-Taiba infrastructure and training facilities that exist throughout Pakistan. TATP might well be easy to make, but somebody still taught the Leeds cell how to do it and convinced them that there'd be seventy virgins waiting for them if they killed a few dozen Britons. Most of all, somebody, in this case Haroon Rashid Aswat and his superiors, was giving the Leeds cell guidance and direction as far as what it was they blew up.
That, Professor Pape, is the reason why more than 50 Britons are now dead, far more so than any angry notions that Tanweer and his contemporaries had about the US occupation of Iraq.
And, proving that even a broken clock is right twice a day, Prince Turki gets it:
"All of these groups maintain a link of sort with bin Laden, either through Internet Web sites, or through messengers, or by going to the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan and maybe not necessarily meeting with bin Laden himself, but with his people.
"Since September 11, these people have continued to operate," he said, speaking at his residence here, where he has been serving as ambassador to Britain. "They are on the run, but they still act with impunity. They can produce their material and get it to the media, it seems, anytime they like. Along with that, of course, are the orders they give to their operatives, wherever they may be."
The State Department, sadly, doesn't:
In April, for example, the State Department concluded in its annual report on terrorist activity around the world that al Qaeda had been supplanted as the most worrisome threat by unaffiliated local groups of Islamic radicals acting on their own, without help from bin Laden or his aides. The pattern of attacks in 2004, the report stated, illustrates "what many analysts believe is a new phase of the global war on terrorism, one in which local groups inspired by al Qaeda organize and carry out attacks with little or no support or direction from al Qaeda itself."
Yep, just like all those communist groups in Europe and Latin America were just "inspired" by the USSR, right? Funny how all of them just happened to die out when the Kremlin stopped having a hammer and a sickle over it, isn't it?
Some regional Islamic radical groups function independently of al Qaeda but enter into mutual alliances for specific operations or campaigns, experts say. In Iraq, for instance, one of the primary networks of insurgents fighting the U.S. military is led by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian who has pledged his loyalty to bin Laden and acts publicly on behalf of al Qaeda but has developed his own organization.
That's what's known in the trade as a "franchise." Zarqawi runs the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda, while Haroon headed up a subset of it in Pakistan. Whoever pulled off the Sharm el-Sheikh bombings is involved with an Egyptian wing and so on all the way up to bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. Bin Laden's goal, at which he has largely succeeded, has always been to create "an organization of organizations" stretching across the entire Islamic world at his beck and call. Having separate if overlapping organizations also insulates both bin Laden and Zarqawi from putting all their eggs in one basket and means that either of them can continue to function even if the other is neutralized.
But intelligence officials and analysts from European and Arab countries say there is increasing evidence that several of the deadliest bombings against civilian targets in recent years can be traced back to suspected mid-level al Qaeda operatives acting on behalf of bin Laden and the network's leadership. In some cases, counterterrorism investigators have concluded that bin Laden or his emissaries set plans in motion to launch attacks and then left it up to local networks or cells to take care of the details.
I suspect that if you go back to the less deadlier attacks you'll find them there too, though perhaps not in as active a role.
"The rather well-formed structure that they had prior to 9/11 does seem to be degraded," said a senior British counterterrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But there is still a fairly potent, if diffuse network out there that still aspires to make decisions. We should be very wary about writing them off."
Unfortunately, it seems that quite a few people did, claiming that the actual al-Qaeda leadership was a spent and degraded force with little if any capacity to mount major attacks. The explosions in the UK and Sharm el-Sheikh seem to have rattled the punditocracy free of that particular fallacy, at least until the obligatory short attention span starts kicking in.
Saudi officials said the interrogation of terrorism suspects in that country, as well as intercepted electronic communications, show that bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, dispatched cell organizers to Saudi Arabia in 2002 and weighed in on basic strategic decisions made by the local al Qaeda affiliate. The al Qaeda leadership also gave direct orders to attack specific targets in the kingdom, Saudi officials said.
Saudi Arabia is rather near and dear to Osama's heart since he plans on ruling it in the coming Caliphate, so it makes sense that he would want to micro-manage there. The mention of electronic intercepts is quite interesting and just adds more credibility to Goss's views that we know or at least have a pretty good idea where he and al-Zawahiri are hiding.
The rest of the article then proceeds to trace back the ties between the al-Qaeda leadership and the bombings in Riyadh, Casablanca, and Madrid as well as being quite fairly critical of Pakistan for allowing its jihadi infrastructure to continue operating with a wink and a nod, but it misses the broader point that I suspect very few in Washington want to talk about.
The story from NBC Investigative Unit linked above ended on this bizarre note:
Most recently, there are reports in Iranian newspapers of the investigation proceeding and a comment by Saif a-Adel, the former military commander, in al-Quds, a radical London-based newspaper. Accompanying an article in which he praises Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, was a note saying that al-Adel had “a lot of free time” to write.
That, say U.S. officials, is a good thing.
From the looks of what's happened in London and Sharm el-Sheikh, al-Adel's been doing a bit more than writing poetry in his spare time. For those who aren't already aware, he became al-Qaeda's military chief following the arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and (among other things) is a former Egyptian special forces colonel and was one of the commanders on the ground fighting US troops in Somalia. As even Prince Turki seems to understand this much judging from his comments earlier in the article, which goes back to the same question that Radio Free Europe asked awhile back.