Experts: Al-Qaida Will Adapt To Mideast Changes Before the terrorist group made the U.S. and the West its principal targets, its top priority was to topple regimes in the Arab world. With revolution rocking the region, intelligence officials are watching to see if al-Qaida seizes the opportunity to return to its original mission.
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Al-Qaida Will Adapt To Mideast Changes, Experts Say

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Al-Qaida Will Adapt To Mideast Changes, Experts Say

Al-Qaida Will Adapt To Mideast Changes, Experts Say

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Before al-Qaida set its sights on the United States and the West, the group's top priority was to topple regimes in the Arab world. Now uprisings are actually taking place. And in Libya today, longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi blamed the terrorist network for unrest in his country.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

He made his latest rambling appeal by phone over state television. Here's a clip, as interpreted on Al-Jazeera's English news channel.

President MOAMMAR GADHAFI (Libya): (Through Translator) What has been the inciting factor behind all this is the al-Qaida and bin Laden.

SIEGEL: And Gadhafi said al-Qaida has brainwashed and given hallucinatory drugs to Libyan youth.

President GADHAFI: (Through Translator) Those enemies who have been training their kids, those are the ones who are under bin Laden's influence and authority.

NORRIS: Whether Gadhafi is right or not, there are real questions about what al-Qaida would do as people rise up in the Middle East and North Africa.

As NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports, Western intelligence officials are watching to find out.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: What a difference a few weeks makes. As this year began, European capitals issued terror alerts. The U.S. was investigating a plot out of Yemen to bomb U.S. cargo planes. And then, the Arab world got its first taste of people power.

(Soundbite of protestors)

Dr. KHALID ABBAS: Look, there is no going back. This is the start of the revolution. We have acquired the first step. But we still have a lot to do.

TEMPLE-RASTON: What that same revolution will mean for al-Qaida is now being debated.

Mr. JUAN ZARATE (Senior Adviser, Center for Strategic and International Studies): What this current environment may be doing is shifting the ground under al-Qaida's feet.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Juan Zarate is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Mr. ZARATE: That is to say, al-Qaida has been very good at focusing the attention of their constituents and of the world on this idea of the far enemy. That is that all of the world's problems, all of the angst and grievances of the Middle East can be blamed on the United States, or at least can be affected by attacking the United States.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Over the past several weeks, nonviolent demonstrations in Tunis and Cairo have affected more change in a matter of days than al-Qaida has by targeting the West for more than a decade. Analysts say al-Qaida is aware of the problem and will change its strategy accordingly.

Professor BRUCE HOFFMAN (Director, Center for Peace and Security Studies, Georgetown University): The al-Qaida has always been ambidextrous.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Bruce Hoffman is a terrorism expert at Georgetown University.

Prof. HOFFMAN: And that's part of the opportunism that I think accounts for its longevity and ability to survive the two-plus decades that it's existed. It'll exploit whatever issue is served in front of it, and do so equally adroitly. So for now it will focus on the near enemy.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The near enemy - the regimes closer to home.

Rick "Ozzie" Nelson is the director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says al-Qaida will likely target the near enemies in Yemen and Libya first, and put less emphasis on targeting the West.

Mr. RICK "OZZIE" NELSON (Center for Strategic and International Studies): Both those countries obviously have longer-standing ties to al-Qaida's senior leadership, and they are probably best positioned to exploit the weakness in those countries.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Al-Qaida already has an arm in Yemen. That group was behind the attempt to bomb a U.S. airliner two Christmases ago and the cargo bomb plot last fall. So that's Yemen. Then there's Libya. One of al-Qaida's top leaders is from Libya and continues to have ties with violent Islamists there. And if the new governments in Tunisia and Egypt don't provide their citizens with the changes they want, that could provide al-Qaida with an opportunity, too.

Again, Rick Nelson.

Mr. NELSON: If the grievances aren't addressed and they demonstrate that peaceful means did not bring about the changes they wanted, they can go back and al-Qaida can say, see, you do need violent to do this.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Focusing on the near enemy in the region could mean less of a threat to the U.S., but not necessarily. Hoffman says as popular movements sweep the Middle East, people have been too quick to count al-Qaida out.

Prof. HOFFMAN: Al-Qaida is in it for the long haul. And even if we don't hear from them now, it doesn't mean that they're not plotting and planning to use what they see as a golden opportunity to their advantage. So I would say it's just too soon to tell how what's going on in the Middle East and North Africa today will affect al-Qaida in the long run.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Hoffman says analysts are always underestimating al-Qaida's ability to adapt.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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