Terror Unlimited

On the history, organisation and modus operandi of Al Qaeda, the terrorist organisation founded and led by Osama bin Laden.

Published : Sep 29, 2001 00:00 IST

At a bookshop in Quetta, Pakistan, a poster of Osama bin Laden. Al Qaeda's network of support cells engages in disseminating propaganda, recruiting members and raising funds, among other things.-AVENTURIER PATRICK/ GAMMA

At a bookshop in Quetta, Pakistan, a poster of Osama bin Laden. Al Qaeda's network of support cells engages in disseminating propaganda, recruiting members and raising funds, among other things.-AVENTURIER PATRICK/ GAMMA

SINCE the beginning of the contemporary wave of terrorism on July 22, 1968, the international counter-terrorist community has never seen an organisation like Al Qaeda. (On that day, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked a Tel Aviv-bound El Al flight to Algiers in the first aircraft hijacking by a Palestinian group.) With no historical precedent, Al Qaeda (The Base) has proved to be difficult to monitor, target and neutralise by employing the traditional tools of law enforcement.

International efforts made to target Al Qaeda after the simultaneous suicide bombing of two U.S. embassies in eastern Africa in October 1998 failed. Despite firing 75 cruise missiles into Afghanistan and then arresting its members worldwide, the bombing of USS Cole in October 2000 and the multiple bombing of U.S. targets inside continental U.S. in September 2001 could not be prevented.

This demonstrates the difficulty the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism will face in the fight against its first target - Al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden. Al Qaeda's unusual capacity to withstand sustained human losses and material wastage is attributed to its unique structure and ideology.

Five characteristics enhance both Al Qaeda's survivability and force multiplication. Al Qaeda is neither one single group nor a coalition of two dozen large, medium and small groups. It is a conglomerate of groups spread throughout the world, operating as a network. Its affiliates include the Egyptian Islamic Jehad (EIJ), Al Gammaya-al Islamia (IG: Islamic Group of Egypt), the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (GIA), the Islamic Party of Turkestan (IPT: Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan), the Jaish-e-Mohammed of Kashmir (JM:Army of Mohommad), and the Abu Sayyaf Group of the Philippines (ASG). The constituent groups of the network have their own command, control and communication structures. But whenever there is the need, these groups interact or merge, ideologically, financially and operationally.

Al Qaeda provides leadership at both the international and national levels. Although Osama has identified the U.S. as its prime enemy, he is an internationalist. As such Osama is likely to target not only Western targets, but also regimes that identify with the West, from Israel to the Philippines. However, the leaders of the other groups that work with Osama also have crucial domestic agendas. For instance, while deputising for Osama, the Emir-General of Al Qaeda, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, also leads the EIJ in Egypt.

Al Qaeda's broad ideological disposition advocates pan-Islam and not pan-Arabism. As a result, Osama's ideology cuts across divisions and appeals to both West Asian and non-West Asian groups, including Asian Islamic groups. His thinking in this direction was greatly influenced both by Abdullah Azzam, his Palestinian mentor, and by Hasan Turabi, the spiritual leader of Sudan.

Al Qaeda has a global reach. It manages support infrastructure in the West Asia and the rest of Asia, Europe and North America. Its network of support cells engages in disseminating propaganda, raising funds, recruiting members/enlisting helpers, gathering intelligence, procuring weapons and dual technologies, organising training, arranging safehouses and vehicles and forging or adapting identification. While it manages permanent operational infrastructure in West Asia and Central, South and Southeast Asia, the Balkans, the Caucasus and sub-Saharan Africa, Al Qaeda has a tremendous capacity to establish as well as regenerate operational cells elsewhere, especially in the West. Its operational cells train, mount reconnaissance or surveillance and conduct attacks.

Al Qaeda's forces are integrated into the Taliban. Taliban forces - effectively the Afghan Army plus foreign fighters - are currently fighting the United Front (formerly the Northern Alliance). In addition to gaining battle experience, Al Qaeda benefits materially from a state sponsor. Al Qaeda combat tacticians, explosives experts and other specialists act as trainers and advisers and actively participate in jehad campaigns (holy wars) from Chechnya to Kashmir and Mindanao. Interaction with the Taliban, state sponsors of these campaigns, and the guerilla and terrorist groups engaged in the forward-line fighting has enriched Al Qaeda's understanding and experience of a wide spectrum of warfare.

The founder leader of Al Qaeda is Osama bin Laden alias Osama Muhammad al Wahad alias Abu Abdallah alias Al Qaqa. Born in 1957, Osama is the son of Muhammed bin Awdah bin Laden of Southern Yemen. With Communism making inroads into Yemen, the bin Laden family moved to Saudi Arabia, where Osama's father distinguished himself as a construction magnate. After Osama's father bin Laden renovated the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the bin Laden family came to be highly respected both by the Saudi royalty and by the public. They were the richest non-royalty in Saudi Arabia.

As a student at Jeddah university, Osama's worldview was shaped by Dr. Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian of Jordanian origin and an influential figure in the Muslim Brotherhood. After graduating at Jeddah University, Osama assisted his father for a while. During this period he became a deeply religious individual.

Osama's exact date of arrival in Pakistan or Afghanistan remains disputed but some Western intelligence agencies place the date in the early 1980s. His early mentors were Azzam, today regarded as the historical leader of the Palestinian Hamas, and Prince Turki ibn Faisal ibn Abdelaziz, Chief of Security of Saudi Arabia, who was dismissed in early September 2001. Subsequently, Dr. Ayman Zawahiri, indicted for assassinating Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, started to fulfil the role, but of religious mentoring.

Between 1982-1984, Azzam founded the Maktab al Khidimat il Mujahideen al Arab (Mak), known commonly as the Afghan Bureau, Office Bureau or Service Bureau. As Mak's principal financier, Osama was considered the deputy to Azzam, the emir of Mak. At the height of the foreign, Arab and Muslim influx into Pakistan-Afghanistan from 1984 to 1986, Osama spent most of his time travelling and raising funds in the Arab world.

In addition to recruiting, and ideologically and physically training several thousand Arab and Muslim youth from the U.S. to the Philippines to fight the Soviets, Mak channelled several billion dollars of Western governmental, financial and material resources for the Afghan jehad. Furthermore, Mak worked closely with Pakistan especially the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan's formidable military intelligence organisation; the wealthy Saudi government and its philanthropists; the Egyptian government, the leader of the Arab world; and the vast Muslim Brotherhood network in the Arab world.

The ISI was the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) conduit for arms transfers and the source of training for the Afghan and foreign Mujahideen. The CIA configured special weapons and provided state-of-the-art technologies, including Stinger missiles and satellite imagery, to the mujahideen. Both the fighting and the relief efforts were assisted by two banks - Dar al Mal al Islami, founded by Turki's brother Prince Mohammad Faisal in 1981, and Dalla al Baraka, founded by King Fahd's brother-in-law in 1982.

The two banks channelled funds to 20 non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the most famous of which was the International Islamic Relief Organisation (IIRO). The IIRO and the Islamic Relief Agency functioned under the umbrella of the World Islamic League led by Mufti Abdul Aziz Bin Baz. In addition to benefiting from the vast resources and expertise of governments channelled through domestic and foreign sources, Mak developed an independent global reach. Several mosques and charities, including the Kiffah refugee centre in Brooklyn and its mosque, served as Mak outreach offices in the U.S.

Osama's relationship with Azzam suffered towards the end of the anti-Soviet Afghan campaign. The dispute was over Azzam's support for Ahmed Shah Masood, the recently-assassinated leader of the Russian-backed United Front fighting the Taliban. Osama always preferred Hekmatiyar, who was both anti-Communist and anti-West. During the anti-Soviet campaign, when Hekmatiyar visited the U.N. in New York, the Afghan Mujahid spurned an invitation to meet the U.S. President. However, Osama never openly expressed any hatred towards the U.S. when living in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

When the Soviets decided to withdraw from Afghanistan, Osama decided to form his own group for the purpose of making a Khalifa or uniting the whole Muslim world into a single entity. Osama wanted to establish Islamic states where there were un-Islamic rulers in power. Despite the differences, Azzam and Osama worked together until Azzam was mysteriously assassinated in September 1989. Although the Soviet troops withdrew that year, the Soviets installed Najibullah, a pro-Communist leader in Kabul. As such, Mak continued to strengthen the organisation to fight both the Najibullah regime and channel resources to other international campaigns where Muslims were perceived as victims. In addition to benefiting from Mak's pan-Islamic (as opposed to pan-Arab) ideology, Al Qaeda drew from the vast financial resources and technical expertise mobilised during the decade-long anti-Soviet campaign.

At the end of the anti-Soviet campaign Osama returned to Saudi Arabia. He helped Saudi Arabia to create the first jehad group in South Yemen under the leadership of Tariq al Fadli. After Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the U.S. became involved in the Persian Gulf War. At the request of Saudi Arabia, the U.S. based its troops in Saudi Arabia. A disturbed Osama, who did not want armed non-Muslims on the land of the two holy mosques, expressed his displeasure to Prince Turki. The failure of the Saudi royalty to honour the pledge to withdraw foreign troops as soon as the Iraqi threat diminished led Osama to initiate a campaign against the Saudi rulers. In Osama's eyes they were "infidels". He claimed that the Saudi rulers were false Muslims and said it was necessary to install a true Islamic state in Saudi Arabia. In response, the Saudi regime deported Osama in 1992 and revoked his citizenship in 1994.

Meanwhile, the National Islamic Front led by Hasan al Turabi, which came to power in Sudan, sent a delegation to Pakistan. Osama had moved his infrastructure of well-trained and experienced fighters from Pakistan to Sudan beginning in 1989. What his father did in Saudi Arabia, Osama wanted to do in Sudan. He established about 30 companies in Sudan, ranging from high-tech labs engaged in genetic research to those involved in the construction of a road from Khartoum to Port Sudan. He remained in Sudan until international pressure forced him to return to Afghanistan in 1996.

EVERY terrorist leader has a distinct psyche that determines his target selection and distinguishes his method of operation. Osama's most recent targets were the U.S. embassies in East Africa (1998); the destroyer U.S.S Cole in Yemen (2000); the World Trade Centre (WTC), the Pentagon and the Congress/White House in the U.S. (2001). They were all high-profile targets - for instance, WTC symbolised America's economic pride, the Pentagon its military might, and the Congress/White House its political power. The East Africa bombings killed 225 people and injured about 4,000; the bombing of USS Cole killed 17 and wounded 42; and the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon killed nearly 6,000 people.

Osama has no compunction against killing large numbers. He is one of the few terrorist leaders who have actively attempted to procure precursors to manufacture weapons of mass destruction. As long as his support and operational network remains intact, he is likely to target population centres in the West, employing conventional and unconventional weapons.

Osama's desire to strike high-profile as well as mass-casualty targets is reflected in all the attacks. In addition to Al Qaeda attacks becoming more lethal incrementally, they also became more innovative and daring. For instance, the first was a land suicide attack, the second a sea-borne suicide attack, and the third an air-borne suicide attack. Although the tactic in all cases was suicide, where the terrorist kills and dies, the medium of operation changed from land to sea and then to air.

Since the beginning of the contemporary wave of terrorism in 1968, it is the first time a terrorist group has successfully conducted an airborne suicide operation in the West (Western Europe and North America); the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) unsuccessfully planned to crash an Air France aircraft on to the Eiffel tower on Christmas Day in 1994.

Another characteristic of Osama is his ability to absorb ideas and operationalise them. The idea of airborne suicide operations grew from a plan conceived by the Oxford and Swansea (Wales)-educated Ramzi Ahmed Yusuf in the Philippines and another Al Qaeda pilot to crash-dive a plane full of chemicals on to the Pentagon in 1994. An accidental fire in Manila disrupted Yusuf's plans, which included the simultaneous bombing of 11 planes over the Pacific and the assassination of the visiting U.S. President Bill Clinton and the Pope. After testing one of the bombs over an aircraft flying over Japan, he fled to Pakistan where he was arrested in one of Osama's safehouses. Although Yusuf is serving a jail term in the U.S. for bombing the WTC in 1993, Osama operationalised Yusuf's plan.

It is also in Osama's psyche to conduct multiple attacks. For instance, when he attacked the U.S. diplomatic targets in East Africa, both the embassies were bombed almost at the same time. Similarly, the attacks in the U.S. were coordinated. The three targets were to be taken within an hour to deny his enemies the lead time to thwart the attacks as well as to shock them. He was able to do so by meticulous planning, thorough preparation and proper attention to detail, all qualities of a professional terrorist. Furthermore, he is patient, cunning and deceptive. The planning and preparations to attack the U.S. embassies in East Africa lasted five years.

Osama also invests significantly in psychological indoctrination, training, reconnaissance, rehearsals, and dry runs. Additionally, he has the capacity to plan several operations simultaneously. For instance, the flying training for the U.S. operation, lasting over one year, began in the U.S. in July 2000. While this training was on, he planned, prepared and executed the suicide bombing of U.S.S Cole. Undoubtedly, he has at least another operation planned, in the preparatory phase, waiting to be executed.

THE most striking feature of Al Qaeda is its vertical and horizontal integration. Vertically, the core and the penultimate leadership comprise Osama, other group leaders, their advisers, planners and trainers. Horizontally, the flat network of compartmentalised cells replicates each day. In addition to these terrorist cells, the bulk of the Al Qaeda forces - designated the V 55 Brigade of the Taliban - fight against the United Front. As such Al Qaeda can engage its opponents both in terrorist (urban/rural) and in semi-conventional warfare. During the last decade, Al Qaeda has grown in strength to about 5,000 men. It has its base and training camps in Khost, Mahavia, Kabul, Jalalabad, Kunar and Kandahar, and depots in Tora Bora and Liza. The continuous process of ideological indoctrination, recruitment and training leads to an expansion of the cellular units as well as the military formations. As Al Qaeda markedly differs from other terrorist groups, the counter-terrorist community has to develop a totally new concept and strategy to challenge this organisation.

Central to neutralising Al Qaeda would be to target the core and the penultimate leadership, the military formation in Afghanistan and its international cellular network. As the V 55 Brigade is integrated with the Taliban forces, the U.S.-led coalition will have no option but to attack the Taliban. Only the ability to develop high-grade intelligence will enable the coalition forces to target the core and penultimate leadership. As a professional who has fought the Soviet military for a decade and the Western intelligence services for another decade, Osama is likely to evade technical surveillance. The only method of targeting the Al Qaeda leadership is by the sustained recruitment of existing members and infiltrating new members who would act as agents for providing sound, timely and usable intelligence to the coalition forces.

Failure to develop ground intelligence, either directly or indirectly through foreign intelligence agencies, will mean the coalition forces fighting Al Qaeda in the dark. Pakistan's security and intelligence services, notably the ISI, have the best intelligence on Central Asia, followed by the Russian security services.

Al Qaeda's capability to operate a robust international network amid high threat demonstrates the difficulty in detecting and disrupting its international support and operational networks. Despite Al Qaeda being on top of the list of Western security and intelligence agencies, its members trained to fly both in the United Kingdom and in the U.S. for one year before the September 11 attack on the U.S. As Al Qaeda assigns high priority to protecting the organisation as well as its operations, penetrating it will be difficult. Nonetheless, by persistent and sustained application of resources at all levels, the Al Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan and its organisational infrastructure worldwide can be disrupted, degraded and destroyed.

The multiple attacks on the U.S. crossed the self-imposed threshold set by terrorist groups and their sponsors. As terrorists tend to compete with, and often out do the others, the attack will set a dangerous precedent for other groups. Therefore, U.S. action against Al Qaeda will determine whether terrorist groups in the future are going to conduct such mass casualty attacks.

Dr. Rohan Gunaratna is Research Fellow, Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, Scotland, U.K. He wrote the cover story on Al Qaeda in the August issue of Jane's Intelligence Review, U.K's leading journal on intelligence.

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