Al-Qaeda 'crushed' by the US war on terror

The Scotsman/May 9, 2003
By Tim Cornwell

Al-Qaeda's failure to launch any major attacks during the Iraq war is adding to a mood of cautious confidence that the organisation's back has been broken.

"They have suffered a number of absolutely crushing blows," said Nick Fielding, a journalist and the co-author of Masterminds of Terror, published this month by the Edinburgh-based Mainstream Publishing.

In US intelligence circles, the belief is growing that al-Qaeda is "nearly crippled", the Washington Post newspaper reported.

Cofer Black, the head of the state department's counter-terrorism office, told the newspaper it was "no coincidence" al-Qaeda failed to carry out attacks during the Iraq war.

"This was the big game for them - you put up or shut up and they have failed," he said. "It proves that the global war on terrorism has been effective, focused, and has got these guys on the run."

President George Bush last week declared that almost half of al-Qaeda's global network has been captured or killed - though "dangerous work" remained in Afghanistan.

"Al-Qaeda is wounded, not destroyed," he said. "The war on terror is not over, yet it is not endless. We do not know the day of final victory, but we have seen the turning of the tide."

US officials caution that a "severe threat" still exists, and a conference of top legal and security officials in Paris this week concluded that al-Qaeda has shifted its operations to new bases in central Asia.

But last week also saw the arrest in Pakistan of two men closely connected to al-Qaeda's inner circle - and the foiling of a plot to fly a light plane laden with explosives into the US consulate in Karachi.

Tawfiq bin Attash was accused of organising the suicide attack on the USS Cole navy ship. Also captured, along with 300lb of explosives, was Ali Abd al-Aziz, a nephew of the al-Qaeda mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, whose capture in March was seen as a major victory.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, claimed yesterday to have foiled attacks on the Saudi Royal Family and US and British interests that were ordered directly by Osama bin Laden.

Some 19 suspected terrorists escaped a gunfight with police, but a large cache of weapons and hundreds of pounds of explosives were seized.

The interior minister, Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz, said the men, "brainwashed" in Afghanistan, could be linked to the al-Qaeda network, which he dismissed as "weak and almost non-existent".

Mr Fielding estimates that the top level of al-Qaeda consisted of about 300 people, with about 5,000 in a second tier. "The first level has been pretty much destroyed and the second badly hit," he said.

The state department, in its annual Patterns of Global Terrorism report, released last week, said 3,000 al-Qaeda members were detained in 100 countries. It noted the number of terror attacks in 2002 had fallen by 44 per cent on the year before - despite hundreds of deaths in the Bali bombing and the Moscow theatre siege.

Yosri Fouda, a chief investigative reporter with the al-Jazeera television network and co-author of Masterminds of Terror, agreed that "to a great extent, al-Qaeda has been broken down", but added: "By no means should we write it off".

Bin Laden, he noted, was still at large, along with his chief lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Qaeda "the idea", appealing to alienated Muslims, was far from finished.

The last reported correspondence from bin Laden was a 52-minute audiotape delivered before the Iraq war.

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