Changes Seen in Al Qaeda Structure
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Experts are wondering if there is a power struggle for leadership of the worldwide jihadist movement. Until recently, it was assumed that Osama bin Laden remained a key figure in this movement. But the insurgency in Iraq has catapulted Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi to a position where he may now rival bin Laden for prominence. NPR's Mike Shuster has more.
MIKE SHUSTER reporting:
Some experts believe al-Qaeda is more an ideological movement now than an operational organization capable of mounting terrorist attacks. In this form, al-Qaeda has inspired local groups of jihadists, such as the cells in Spain and Great Britain that attacked the Madrid commuter trains last and the London underground in July. Others believe Osama bin Laden is still actively plotting catastrophic attacks against the United States, and still other experts see al-Qaeda giving priority to the insurgency in Iraq. For Daniel Benjamin, co-author of "The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting it Right," al-Qaeda is always changing and evolving.
Mr. DANIEL BENJAMIN (Co-Author, "The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy For Getting it Right"): It's a movement with many different shapes and forms right now, and that makes it very hard to grasp and to really reckon with.
SHUSTER: Osama bin laden has not released an audio- or videotape of himself for more than a year, leaving to speculation that he died, possibly a victim of the earthquake in Pakistan in October. But that is just speculation. Michael Scheuer, the former CIA officer in charge of intelligence on bin Laden, believes al-Qaeda is still capable of ordering terrorist attacks but that bin Laden is thinking about the time when he will no longer be on the scene.
Mr. MICHAEL SCHEUER (Former CIA Officer): You should also see a kind of a modern CEO approach in bin Laden's talents that he prepares the next generation of leaders. And I think that's clearly what's going on in al-Qaeda.
SHUSTER: Bin Laden may not be able to control who follows him. Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi has emerged as a rival to bin Laden, according to some terrorism specialists. Zarqawi was not bin Laden's first choice to lead the Iraqi operations, some believe, but he seized the opportunity and bin Laden eventually acquiesced. Recently, evidence has surfaced that bin Laden may not be happy with some of Zarqawi's methods, especially the ruthless attacks on Iraqi Shiites. Bernard Haykel, a New York University scholar of the jihadist movement, says these differences are crucial.
Mr. BERNARD HAYKEL (New York University Scholar): I think there's a power struggle within al-Qaeda itself, and the radicalization that we see with Zarqawi is really about the future leadership of al-Qaeda and Zarqawi's opting for the most radical, most extreme form of violence.
SHUSTER: There is no doubt that the war in Iraq is having a profound impact on the jihadist movement. Some in the Bush administration have argued that the Iraq insurgency is bringing terrorists more clearly into the gun sights of American soldiers. Michael Scheuer sees more benefits for those who want to attack the United States.
Mr. SCHEUER: It's a wonderful place for large numbers of young men to come and cut their jihadi teeth, if you will. Iraq is heaven-sent in terms of training insurgents, allowing al-Qaeda to do what it does best which is insurgent-type warfare.
SHUSTER: But al-Qaeda is using more than the Iraq battleground to prepare and train terrorists for future attacks. Now much of that kind of work is being done on the Internet, says Daniel Benjamin.
Mr. BENJAMIN: The Internet has completely revolutionized the game as far as the terrorists are concerned. Now we see, for example, that master bomb-makers are instructing their proteges, probably from a distance of thousands of miles, on the finer points of bomb-building. The skills that are being transferred are really quite formidable.
SHUSTER: The Internet also allows al-Qaeda's leadership to assess its performance within a wider constituency. The Web is filled with discussion and debate of all aspects of the global jihad, from the tactics in Iraq to the beheading of Western captives to the recent bombing of three hotels in Jordan. The leaders of al-Qaeda pay close attention to what is being said, says Bernard Haykel.
Mr. HAYKEL: These terrorists have a public, they have an audience and they're constantly trying to engage with this audience, trying to gauge what the tolerance level of their public is for the kind of violent activities that they're engaged in, they're involved in.
SHUSTER: At this moment, there are signs al-Qaeda may seek to widen its sphere of operations. Daniel Benjamin says a recent appeal from bin Laden to Zarqawi urging him to mount attacks beyond Iraq's borders is an especially dangerous sign.
Mr. BENJAMIN: If bin Laden thinks that Zarqawi is better-placed to carry out such attacks, it ought to be a wake-up call for all of us, and there has been a lot said and written about Zarqawi's tentacles reaching into Europe and elsewhere. But if that's bin Laden's assessment, then I think we really ought to take it very, very seriously.
SHUSTER: Once jihadi veterans of the Iraq insurgency loyal to Zarqawi begin to return to their home countries, they could represent an even more dangerous cadre of terrorists than those who were trained in Afghanistan and who carried out the decade of attacks that culminated in 9/11.
Mike Shuster, NPR News.
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