Despite being the most hunted movement in history, Al Qaeda and its associate organisations will pose a significant threat in 2003. Al Qaeda per se will fragment, decentralise, regroup in five zones of the world, work with like-minded groups, select a wider range of targets, focus on economic targets and population centres, and conduct most attacks in the global south. Although the group will be constrained from conducting coordinated simultaneous attacks against high profile symbolic or strategic targets in the West, Al Qaeda with its regional counterparts will conduct attacks aimed at Western targets in Asia, Africa, Middle East, and even Latin America. Despite heavy losses, including the likely capture or death of its core and penultimate leaders, Al Qaeda’s anti-Western universal jihad ideology inculcated among the politicised and radicalised Muslims, will sustain support for Islamism, Islamist political parties and Islamist terrorist groups. With the detection, disruption, and degradation of its human and material infrastructure, Al Qaeda may evolve and survive as a state-of-mind among Islamist territorial and migrant pockets. With a skewed US Middle Eastern policy, Islamist support for political violence will grow, prompting terrorist groups to conduct mass casualty attacks, especially suicide bombings of economic targets and population centres.
The New Year will witness the following key terrorist trends and patterns:
Since October 7, 2001, when US-led coalition forces began to dismantle Al Qaeda’s state of the art operational and training infrastructure, its intention to attack has not diminished though its capability to attack has gravely suffered. With the US working with several Middle Eastern and Asian Governments, Al Qaeda’s strength has been depleted to a third of its rank and file, especially with the loss or capture of its key leaders and experienced operatives. Therefore, the group is increasingly probing targets that can be attacked with least effort and least cost. In keeping with its doctrine of repeating its successes, Al Qaeda and its associate groups are increasingly adopting the tactic of suicide attacks against soft targets.
While Al Qaeda’s priority will be to attack US targets, it only has the resources and opportunity to attack US allies and friends. With diminished Al Qaeda assets and hardened US and Israeli diplomatic targets, the group will attempt to mount attacks against British, French, German, Italian, Canadian, Australian and possibly other European and Japanese targets. Throughout 2002, Al Qaeda or its associate groups killed German tourists in Djerba, Tunisia; French naval technicians in Karachi, Pakistan; Australians and Westerners in Bali, Indonesia; and Israelis in Mombassa, Kenya. Osama bin Laden’s pronouncements in October and November 2002 will be the best guide to unfolding Al Qaeda plans in 2003. As such, more effort is needed to track and target Al Qaeda experts moving worldwide and disrupt them from coordinating attacks together with Al Qaeda associate groups with which it had shared ideology, finance and training during the last decade in Afghanistan and in other conflict zones.
Countermeasures, especially target hardening, by law enforcement and protective services of vulnerable government personnel and infrastructure have forced Al Qaeda to focus on economic targets and population centres. Hardening of government targets will displace the threat to softer targets making civilians prone to terrorist attack. Economic targets, especially the tourist and the hotel industry, will suffer from terrorism. Churches, synagogues, and other non-Islamic institutions as well as trade and investment will remain particularly vulnerable. Similarly, hardening of land aviation targets will shift the threat to maritime targets particularly to commercial shipping. Due to the difficulty of hijacking aircraft to ram them against targets, Al Qaeda will acquire and employ hand- held Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs). If appropriate and immediate countermeasures are not taken to target the Al Qaeda shipping network, SAMs under Al Qaeda control held in the Pakistan-Kashmir-Afghanistan theatre, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Horn of Africa will find its way to East Asia and to Europe, and possibly even to North America. Other groups operationally and ideologically unconnected to Al Qaeda will learn from Al Qaeda technologies, tactics, and techniques.
With US security forces and the intelligence community targeting Al Qaeda’s nerve centre in Afghanistan-Pakistan, Al Qaeda will decentralise even further. While the organisers of attacks will remain in Pakistan and its immediate neighbourhood, its operatives will travel back and forth coordinating with Al Qaeda nodes in the south. To make its presence felt, Al Qaeda will increasingly rely on its global terrorist network of like-minded groups in Southeast Asia, South Asia, Horn of Africa, Middle East, and the Caucasus to strike at its enemies. Already, attacks in Kenya, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Kuwait and Yemen seek to compensate for the loss and lack of space and opportunity to operate in Afghanistan. Its operatives will work together with Jemaah Islamiyah (JI: Southeast Asia), Al Ittihad al Islami (Horn of Africa), Chechen Mujahidin (Khattab faction: Caucasus), Tunisian Combatants Group (Middle East), Jayish-e-Mohommad (South Asia) and other groups it trained and financed in the past decade. In addition to its own members, Al Qaeda will operate through the Salafi Group for Call and Combat (GSPC) and Takfir Wal Hijra – two groups it had infiltrated in Europe and North America. With the transfer of terrorist technology and expertise from the centre to the periphery, the attacks by the associate groups of Al Qaeda will pose a threat as great as Al Qaeda.
Although attacking inside North America, Europe, Australasia and Israel remains a priority, the measures and countermeasures taken by these governments will make it difficult for Al Qaeda to mount an operation in the West. Al Qaeda finds it less costly to operate in parts of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East where there is a lack of security controls. Therefore, most attacks will be against Western targets located in the global south. While focusing on Western targets will remain a priority, Al Qaeda will continue to conduct operations against Muslim rulers and regimes supporting the US-led “war on terror.” The physical security of Pakistani and Afghan leaders Musharaaf and Karzai will remain particularly vulnerable and their regimes will come under sustained political challenges.
While a number of Pakistani groups fighting in Kashmir will come under greater control of Al Qaeda, the group working together with the surviving elements of the Taliban will develop a clandestine network inside Afghanistan to conduct guerrilla warfare, terrorism, and political assassination.
For greater impact, Al Qaeda will conduct coordinated simultaneous attacks against symbolic, high prestige or strategic targets with the intention of inflicting maximum damage to human and physical infrastructure. While Al Qaeda will be constrained from mounting multiple attacks in the global north, where its resources and operations are under strain and scrutiny, Al Qaeda and its associate groups are still able to mount multiple operations in the global south where they have greater leverage, space, and time to operate. For instance, JI attacked Sari and Kuta clubs and the US consulate in Bali, Indonesia, on October 12, 2002; and Al Qaeda attacked an Israeli owned hotel and aircraft in Mombassa, Kenya, on November 29, 2002.
Al Qaeda has suffered with the arrest of nearly 3000 organisers, operatives and supporters in 98 countries from October 2001. With the increase in pressure, Al Qaeda is increasingly depending on its associate groups to conduct attacks. Traditionally, Al Qaeda with better-trained, more experienced and highly committed operatives, wanted to attack more difficult targets especially strategic targets and leave the easier and tactical targets to its associate groups. Today, with Al Qaeda operatives working closely with them, the lethality of the attacks conducted by the associate groups of Al Qaeda is increasing. As Bali demonstrated, the attacks conducted by the associate groups of Al Qaeda can be as lethal as the attacks conducted by Al Qaeda itself. With attacks conducted by Al Qaeda’s associate groups posing a threat as great as Al Qaeda, the theatre of war will widen. US assistance, presence and influence will grow in the Muslim World generating wide-ranging reactions.
With the loss of Afghanistan as a “liberated theatre of jihad,” Islamists will seek to create new theatres. Dr Ayman Zawahiri, Osama’s deputy and designated successor and principal strategist of Al Qaeda, considers Afghanistan and Chechnya as the only two liberated theatres of jihad. Already due to the difficulty of movement of recruits and flow of support from Islamist migrant pockets in the West and in the Middle East to Afghanistan, there has been a partial diversion of support to Chechnya. Although there is a significant reserve of Afghan-trained active and sleeper terrorists in the West, terrorists entering the West to attack Western targets may be trained in a number of theatres especially Chechnya. With Al Qaeda fragmenting, several other groups will take over the role of waging a universal jihad. More territorial Islamist groups will espouse universal agendas and more Muslim separatist groups will become vulnerable to penetration by Islamist groups.
Al Qaeda will be operating across the technological spectrum but is likely to use low-tech high impact attacks, especially civilian infrastructure to attack civilian society and critical infrastructure. With greater border controls, members and associate members of Al Qaeda will use what can be readily purchased off-the-shelf, especially from pharmacies, chemist shops, and hardware stores. Al Qaeda members will live off the environment and turn commercially available material into weapons. Al Qaeda’s Tunisian member conducted a suicide attack against the oldest Jewish synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia, using a LPG truck; JI used a consignment of chlorate purchased from the port city of Surabaya in Indonesia against targets in Bali; and 9-11 hijackers used passenger aircraft against America’s icons. The latter attack, an Al Qaeda detainee said was “like using your own finger to prick your eye.” Using multiple identities, Al Qaeda members will travel to target countries, receive instructions, plan and prepare attacks through the Internet, and attack targets. They will generate support from low-level crime, organised crime, infiltrated charities, and from politicised and radicalised segments of their migrant and diaspora communities.
With the 9-11 mastermind and head of the military committee of Al Qaeda, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, assuming a central role in the planning and preparation of attacks, his persona will be reflected in the attacks. First, mass casualty attacks, second, the abundant use of suicide terrorism, third, bombings, and fourth, assassination. As mass casualty attacks need a large number of operatives, greater resources, and planning over a long period of time, Al Qaeda will be able to conduct fewer attacks but they are likely to become spectacular or theatrical attacks. Assassination will be used more frequently although suicide bombings will be the most predominant form of attack. As suicide attacks are very difficult to disrupt in the execution phase, 2003 will see the tactic of suicide terrorism being used more widely. As Al Qaeda maximises successes and partial successes of attacks and minimises its failures, suicide attacks will become increasingly common. Although Al Qaeda’s long term and sustained interest to use chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear agents has not diminished, conventional terrorism will remain the preferred mode of attack.
US policies towards the Middle East, especially the unilateral US threat to invade Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian issue, will strengthen support for Islamism, Islamist political parties and terrorist groups. US’s skewed foreign policy will continue to pose a significant terrorist threat to Western interests both at home and overseas. In many countries, Islamism will move from the periphery to the centre, making it difficult for many governments to openly support the US-led “war against terrorism.” With support for Islamism rising, Islamists will campaign either politically or violently or both in Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia, and other emerging democracies. In addition to well-organised groups, individual terrorists will mount operations, similar to the shooting at the El Al counter at the Los Angeles Airport on America’s Independence Day 2002. With more media reports about Islam, the Muslim public will become more aware of Islam. The number of Muslims directly supporting violence will remain very small but there will be more support for a Muslim way of life, especially the implementation of Sharia laws. Furthermore, the need to wage jihad in support of their suffering brethren will rise among politicised and radicalised segments of the Muslims.
If the threat posed by Islamism is to be countered and the life span of Islamist terrorist groups is to be shortened, in the medium and long term, the current Western, especially US approach of 95% military and 5% ideological warfare will have to be reserved. To reduce the space for the Al Qaeda to survive and grow, the international community must develop a multi-pronged, multi-dimensional, multi-agency, and multi-jurisdictional approach against terrorism. Failure to develop a comprehensive long-term strategic response will mean Al Qaeda changing shape, surviving and continuing the fight.
Just like 2002, the new year will be a year of experience and learning both for government law enforcement and intelligence agencies. With the wider acknowledgement that there is no standard textbook for fighting Al Qaeda, it will be a learning process where new structures and institutions will have to be built and shaped to fight a rapidly evolving but cunning and ruthless foe, willing to kill and die. To win, governments will have to repeat their successes and build upon their successes.
In its founding charter, Al Qaeda Al Sulbah (The Solid Base) is defined as the “spearhead of Islam” and the “pioneering vanguard of the Islamic movements.” The existing and emerging Islamist groups armed with the Al Qaeda ideology will pose a continuous terrorist threat. Although Al Qaeda as a physical entity will be relegated to history, it has at least partially accomplished its primary role of “showing the way” to other groups especially the need to go beyond a limited territorial agenda and wage a universal jihad. The momentum Al Qaeda has so successfully unleashed will spawn and sustain a dozen existing and emerging Islamist groups in the immediate to mid term.
About the Author
Dr Rohan Gunaratna is an Associate Professor at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Nanyang Technological University.
Last updated on 02/10/2014