For Sale : Terror franchise, Contact : Al-Qaeda

BRITISH TERROR PLOT

Danger to US greater than ever with individual cells able to formulate plans without Osama’s leadership.

IT TOOK only a few hours for US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to declare that the London terror plot could have the deadly footprint of Al-Qaeda.

Investigators are still sifting through the fragmented evidence and the available facts of a masterful effort by British citizens, mostly of Pakistani descent, to coordinate a ‘well-planned and well-financed plot’ that bore a resemblance to the infamous 1995 Operation Bojinka.

Then, as today, there was an attempt to blow up commercial airliners in mid-air to cause what top British officials described after last week’s foiled bid as mass murder on an unimaginable scale.

Circumstantial it may be, but it is the closest evidence yet that links the terror network to the scene of the crime.

Beyond this, there is little to suggest that this was an Al-Qaeda-directed operation.

If anything, the latest incident reinforces trends in recent years which indicate that franchise groups were behind it.

After five years of intense pressure from the United States and its allies – some 80 per cent of Al-Qaeda’s leadership have been captured or killed – the network has dispersed its surviving operatives, distributed its ideology and techniques for mass-casualty attacks and encouraged new followers to act in its name.

Individual cells appear to have developed the capacity to formulate sophisticated plans without the direct leadership of Osama bin Laden and his deputies.

What this means for the US is that the risk of another attack is greater today than ever before.

Noted Dr Neil Livingstone, a leading terrorism expert here: ‘The bad news for the US is that Al-Qaeda has created franchise operations in which these groups are increasingly self-reliant and capable of carrying out attacks without the direction of a central command.

‘It leaves America in an even more vulnerable position because there are a growing number of Muslim radicals outside the country who want to exact revenge.’

The London plot underscores this point. Europe now is being seen as a recruitment ground and base to plan attacks against the US.

Dr Robert Leiken of the Washington-based Nixon Centre wrote in the Foreign Affairs journal in August last year: ‘Radical Islam is spreading across Europe among descendants of Muslim immigrants.

‘Disenfranchised and disillusioned by the failure of integration, some of them have taken up jihad against the West.

‘To strike at the US, Al-Qaeda counts less on domestic sleeper cells than on foreign infiltration. As a 9/11 commission staff report put it, Al Qaeda faces a travel problem’: how can it move its mujahideen from hatchery to target.

‘Europe’s mujahideen may present a solution.’

The probability of an attack emanating from terrorists in Britain or any of the other European countries remains high.

But there is also a creeping concern among the authorities here of the presence of cells in the US.

An American intelligence source disclosed that while Muslims were far more integrated in the US than in European countries, it was difficult to rule out the possibility that some might have been drawn to Al-Qaeda’s ideological cult.

Prior to Sept 11, former US counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke forwarded a strategy paper to Dr Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser, that Al-Qaeda had a presence in the country.

After the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the worry centred on ‘terrorist sleeper cells’ carrying out further attacks. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) tried to shut down these cells. Its chief, Mr Robert Mueller, voiced his acute concern over the lack of intelligence on Al-Qaeda cells to a Senate sub-committee in February last year.

He listed uncovering them as a top FBI priority and acknowledged that it was also one of the toughest challenges.

Counter-terrorism experts believe that two or three cells could carry out a major attack.

Last year, a Homeland Security Department report identified a dozen possible strikes which it considered most likely or devastating.

This included the detonation of a nuclear device in a major city, the truck bombing of a sports arena and the release of sarin nerve agent in office buildings.

An anthrax attack, for example, involves terrorists filling a truck with an aerosolised version of anthrax and driving through five cities over two weeks spraying into the air.

The report predicted that an estimated 350,000 people would be exposed, and about 13,200 would die.

How are the US authorities dealing with the problem? Tough – and controversial measures – that included heightened surveillance of telephone calls, electronic communications and international money transfers are some of the weapons the White House is using.

The government established the Homeland Security Department after the attacks in 2001 to bring together several agencies.

Soon after, the post of national intelligence director was created to put an end to bureaucratic infighting.

But it might be too soon to judge whether US intelligence agencies have passed their ‘first big test’.

While there was evidence of close transatlantic cooperation in the counter-terrorist operations last Thursday, much of the kudos appears to have gone to the British and Pakistani security agencies.

US President George W. Bush has maintained that America is ‘at war with Islamic fascists’.

With Al-Qaeda morphing, expect a long war.

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