Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Al Qaeda mutating like a virus

Olivia Ward of the Toronto Star takes a look at the way the "war on terror" has affected Al Qaeda.

The worldwide campaign [against Al Qaeda since 9/11], coupled with the Afghan war, resulted in a great leap forward in the understanding of how Al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups work.

American intelligence sources say the draconian measures have delivered significant blows to Al Qaeda and its associates, shattering their bases of operations, breaking up their financial pipelines, killing some of their leaders and putting thousands of operatives on the run.

That's the good news.

But the bad news, delivered over the past month of spectacular killings, shows that, like a virus, Al Qaeda and its allies are fragmenting, mutating and spreading again.

Part of the problem, analysts say, was the war in Iraq, which unsurprisingly created a new wave of animosity toward the United States and Britain, acting as an effective recruiting tool among disaffected Muslims.

The failure to locate Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the existence of which were used to justify the invasion, has reinforced the belief that America was cynically "sacrificing blood for oil" in a desperately poor and barely functioning country.

But most alarming, Middle East experts say, is the sacrifice of the long-term U.S. policy of supporting secular, rather than Islamic governments in the region, leaving the way open for extremists.

"This war has been a gift to Osama bin Laden," says Saad al-Fagih, the London-based director of the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia.

"First of all, very few people in the region supported his argument that America wanted hegemony over the Middle East. At the same time, they believed that if there were an invasion of Iraq, the Baath party and its supporters would put up a serious fight."

However, al-Fagih says, "the fact that America actually waged war in Iraq showed that bin Laden was right. And when the Baath party supporters gave up so easily, it was a major defeat for secular Arab nationalism."

Al Qaeda, which is fighting to install an extreme form of Islam across the Muslim world, has become an even-stronger magnet for disaffected Muslims who feel the only way of stopping Washington's mammoth military machine is through terrorist action.