A weak al Qaeda may be just wishful thinking

By Caroline Drees

An al Qaeda link to a foiled plot to bomb transatlantic flights could signal that the core militant Islamic group or local spin-offs are stronger than some officials and experts believed, analysts say.

While senior U.S. officials have always stressed that the original al Qaeda leadership was versatile and remained the pre-eminent threat, they have also said the arrest or killing of many of its senior militants had undermined the group.

This year’s State Department annual global terrorism report said al Qaeda’s top leaders appeared unable to direct militant activity as fully as in the past. Meanwhile, it said a proliferation of smaller, looser militant groups seemed less capable but also less predictable than the original al Qaeda.

"If indeed al Qaeda central was involved, it suggests that maybe it has not been damaged to the extent we thought and is still able to cobble together a very ambitious plot," said Kenneth Katzman, a terrorism expert at the Congressional Research Service, the in-house think tank of Congress.

"Even if it was not al Qaeda central, though, it’s highly unsettling because it shows you don’t need that central direction to put together a plot like this," he said.

A U.S. intelligence official said al Qaeda leaders, affiliated groups and home-grown militants inspired by Osama bin Laden are all being targeted.

"The terrorist threat is more diffuse and we’ve known that for some time," the official said.

While it is too early to know who was behind the plot, top U.S. officials said the planned attacks bore many tell-tale signs of al Qaeda’s core leadership.

"It does have all the hallmarks," White House Homeland Security Adviser Fran Townsend said on Friday.

"We’re examining those links, as we speak, we’re examining them with our allies around the world. I would be, frankly, surprised if we didn’t find them. We’ve already seen some and we’re continuing to look for others."


Signs of al Qaeda links include trips to Pakistan by suspects, a history of al Qaeda interest in bombing planes and an operational style involving several synchronized attacks.

Last month, al Qaeda, whose leaders are thought to be hiding on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, also urged Muslims to fight those backing Israel’s strikes on Lebanon and warned of attacks unless U.S. and British forces left Iraq and Afghanistan.

British police have played down direct involvement by the global militant group.

But terrorism experts and officials say nobody knows for sure if the original al Qaeda leadership was pulling the strings or whether home-grown militant groups have become so virulent they can plan massive attacks on their own.

"I don’t think anyone knows for sure yet, or has drawn any kind of (concrete) link to the names you would recognize the most," one U.S. counterterrorism official said, referring to bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri.

David Claridge, managing director of Janusian Security Risk Management in London, said the similarity between the plot and an aborted al Qaeda plan known as "Bojinka" to bomb aircraft over the Pacific in 1995 made him wonder:

"Is this ‘al Qaeda Afghanistan,’ as it were, planning an operation to revisit what they failed to do in the past, or is it some British extremists who’ve read about it and thought ‘Why don’t we try and do that?"’

Copyright © 2006 Reuters