In a series of speeches, President George W. Bush marked the approaching fifth anniversary of al Qaeda’s Sept. 11 airline bomb attacks on America with dire warnings that Osama bin Laden‘s fundamentalist terrorists are as dangerous as ever. If they are not fought in the streets of Iraq and Afghanistan, he contended, the war will come to the streets of America.
But al Qaeda has undergone changes in five years.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s al Qaeda experts note that, since June 7, 2006, when America’s long arm reached out and killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, its man in Iraq, the fundamentalist group has pulled in its horns in that embattled country and gone back to plotting strategic attacks on America and its European allies as well as large-scale terrorist rampages in various parts of Asia. Bin Laden has even left the Afghanistan war against NATO pretty much to the devices of his longtime partner, the deposed Taliban’s leader Mullah Omar.
For three years, DEBKA-Net-Weekly described how Zarqawi’s forceful personality and original tactical cast of mind lent tremendous momentum to al Qaeda’s operations in Iraq and across the Middle East.
Bin Laden, without subscribing to Zarqawi’s strategic overview, nevertheless gave him his head, as long as his face-to-face challenge to the Americans in Iraq and neighboring lands was effective. A demonstration for the benefit of Muslims everywhere that al Qaeda had picked up the gauntlet against the American military presence in Iraq was worth the considerable investment of fighting manpower recruited worldwide and the vast funds that were sunk into the Iraq terror offensive.
It was even worth confronting internal objections raised in al Qaeda’s leadership to the savage methods employed by al Qaeda’s man in Iraq. Bin Laden’s No. 2 Ayman Zawahiri published a number of edicts condemning his brutal ways.
For Osama bin Laden there were further advantages.
He was left free to quietly pursue plans for the next stage of his campaign of terror. Zarqawi’s outrageous actions in Iraq and the general view held in the West that bin Laden was on the run and forced to cut down on his operations, drew attention from his secret endeavor, which was the cultivation of an operational tool to be held ready for introduction when Zarqawi departed the terrorist stage.
Al Qaeda is a great outsourcer, farming out most of its operations to local fundamentalist affiliates or regional branches to which logistical and other assistance is extended. Osama bin Laden has always reserved al Qaeda proper for strategic operations against America orchestrated by himself, like 9/11 and the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as the attacks staged in Saudi Arabia.
Even Zarqawi and his following were not al Qaeda members. They were embraced and supported by the fundamentalist organization.
The 2004 Madrid train bombings were the work of another operational surrogate, the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group; all the attacks in Southeast Asia, Turkey, Russia and the Caucasian were executed by local jihadist groups. For the multi-casualty bombings in New Delhi and Mumbai, al Qaeda recruited the Kashmiri Lashkar al Toiba.
Osama bin Laden has always been on the lookout for likeminded national or regional groups as his forward operational arm, or movements with a global reach. In twenty years, al Qaeda has only associated itself with a single organization answering to the second description and that was Zawahiri’s Jihad Islami, whose arms connect to the central Egyptian hub. This link gave al Qaeda its first broad-based impetus as a global terrorist organization.
Successors to Zarqawi’s group
Since Zarqawi’s liquidation by US forces in Iraq in June 2006, there are signs that bin Laden’s work has born fruit and a fresh element groomed to take Zarqawi’s place in the international terror arena: Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami, a straddling worldwide organization which in many ways is even more dangerous than Zawahiri’s Jihad Islami.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources cite Western and Middle East intelligence officials engaged in day-to-day combat with al Qaeda as reporting the Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami footprint had turned up in recent anti-terror investigations in some European, Central Asian and Middle East countries. British authorities encountered connections when they uncovered a plot in early August to blow up half a dozen transatlantic airliners over American cities.
Some of the suspects detained were found to have links to Hizb al-Tahrir.
Another such association was exposed this week when the BND director Ernst Uhrlau arrived in Beirut to research the Lebanese ring which left two bomb-suitcases on trains to Dortmund and Coblenz on July 31. It was thanks only to a faulty bomb mechanism that the suitcases did not blow up and leave even more fatalities than did the Madrid bombings in 2004 and London transport attacks in 2005.
At first, German intelligence suspected a Hizballah network was at the bottom of the bomb plot because of the Lebanon War. But then, an al Qaeda cell with Hizb al-Tahrir operatives was discovered on a completely different delayed mission; to time their attack for the 2006 FIFA World Cup Finals in German towns.
Israel’s Shin Bet and Jordanian General Intelligence have also detected the presence of fresh al Qaeda manpower drawn from Hizb al-Tahrir in the Hashemite kingdom and the West Bank.
The radical and fundamentalist Hizb al-Tahrir (Party of Liberation) never embraced terrorism until recently but operated underground to overthrow targeted regimes in stages by propaganda, conversion, recruitment to secret cells, military training and, when the time was opportune, violent coup d’etat.
The movement’s goal is to reestablish the caliphate in the Muslim world to be a single pan-Islamic state which would be aggressively expansionist. Under Hizb al Tahrir’s charter, jihad is a compulsory duty for all Muslims and Muslim males over 15 are obliged to join up for military duty.
The radical organization has a strong presence in East Jerusalem, where it was founded in 1953 by a Jerusalem judge (qadi), Sheikh Muhammad Taqiuddin bin Ibrahim bin ArabMustafah bin Yusuf al-Nabhani, son of the Bani Nabhan tribe of Haifa.
The Hizb, which is made up of semi-autonomous national branches much like Jihad Islami, calls on Muslims to overthrow their governments, particularly in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which are seen as Western lackeys.
Not surprisingly, the movement is much feared in moderate Arab countries and banned in many, although allowed to operate in the UAE, Lebanon and Yemen.
The group is violently anti-Western, displaying animosity not only for the United States and Britain but also India and Jews everywhere. For its adherents, suicide bombings in Israel are legitimate acts of martyrdom. It is banned in Germany, Russia and Central Asia, where the movement is very strong.
Its branches are deeply engaged in interethnic conflicts in Uzbekistan, Southern Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Hizb al-Tahrir maintains training camps in the Fergana Valley, where its recuits join al Qaeda trainees from the Chinese province of Xinjiang.
The group’s cooperation with al Qaeda dates back to the mid-1990s in Central Asia and Pakistan where it is outlawed. This cooperation has deepened of late with the result that Hizb al-Tahriri is increasingly drawn by bin Laden’s organization into terrorist activities on its behalf.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s al Qaeda experts find most Western intelligence services are not sufficiently conscious of the emergence of an al Qaeda star operational arm. If the cooperation between al Qaeda and this radical group continues to ripen, we stand before a significant and threatening enhancement of al Qaeda’s ability to inflict terror on the West in the five years to come.