Intelligence chiefs forced to rethink as bomb targets complacency

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The Independent Online

A week ago the US intelligence community was talking with a swagger bordering on arrogance that had not existed since the attacks of 11 September. Al-Qa'ida was on the run, said officials in Washington. It may not have been entirely destroyed but the back of the organisation had been broken, its leadership and operational capabilities severely disrupted.

A week ago the US intelligence community was talking with a swagger bordering on arrogance that had not existed since the attacks of 11 September. Al-Qa'ida was on the run, said officials in Washington. It may not have been entirely destroyed but the back of the organisation had been broken, its leadership and operational capabilities severely disrupted.

"It's no coincidence [that al-Qa'ida did not launch an attack during the war against Iraq]," boasted Cofer Black, a CIA veteran who heads the State Department's counter-terrorism office. "This was the big game for them: you put up or shut up and they have failed. It proves that the global war on terrorism has been effective, focused and has these guys on the run."

Yesterday, Mr Black was unavailable for further comment, while rescue workers in Riyadh were searching the rubble left by attacks Mr Black's boss, the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, said had "all the fingerprints" of the supposedly defeated terror network.

For the US intelligence community to have been so apparently complacent and casual seems astonishing. Almost as Mr Black was telling The Washington Post he believed al-Qa'ida was on the run, a self-proclaimed spokesman for Osama bin Laden's group was warning the London-based Arabic weekly, al-Majalla magazine, that it had been thoroughly restructured and was planning further spectacular attacks against US targets.

Thabet bin Qais, who said he was al-Qa'ida's new spokesman, said: "The Americans only have predictions and old intelligence. It will take them a long time to understand the new form of al-Qa'ida. American security agencies still are ignorant of the changes the leadership has made." And he added: "A strike against America is definitely coming. Martyrdom operations in the jihad will go on."

The attacks on New York and Washington 20 months ago dealt America a blow, physical and psychological, from which it has not fully recovered, but one can see why Mr Black was tempted to sound off so optimistically. President George Bush's much-publicised war on terror had, on the face of it, a fair degree of success.

In the year after 11 September 2001, more than 3,000 suspected al-Qa'ida members around the world were arrested. Bin Laden may or may not be alive, and many of his lieutenants have been captured or killed. They included the group's military director, Mohammed Atef, his replacement, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the planning director Abu Zubeida, Ramzi Binalshibh and, two weeks ago, Tawfiq bin Attash. He was held in Pakistan with a nephew of Mr Mohammed.

Under interrogation at either Guantanamo Bay or US bases in Afghanistan, these men were said to be providing US intelligence with crucial information that was helping disrupt attacks and catch suspected members. On Monday, 13 men suspected of al-Qa'ida links went on trial in the Netherlands. A week ago, Saudi security services raided a suspected al-Qa'ida hide-out but allowed 19 men, 17 of them Saudis, to escape.

One senior US intelligence analyst said: "The nucleus of the al-Qa'ida leaders was relatively small and Atef and Moham-med were significant losses. There are not many with senior operational capabilities left. They must move around and keep their heads down, mainly concentrating during their waking hours on surviving."

But in March last year, five people were killed after militants linked to al-Qa'ida bombed a church in Islamabad used by Westerners. A month later, the oldest synagogue in the Tunisian city of Djerba was bombed, killing 19 people, mostly German tourists. Last June, a car bomb at the US consulate in Karachi killed 12. Police blamed the International Movement of Mujahedin, also linked to al-Qa'ida.

Then last October, 202 people were killed, including 26 Britons, when militants, again said to be from a group linked to al-Qa'ida, detonated a bomb outside the Sari Club in Bali. The first trial started this week.

Some experts believe Western intelligence has been too quick to visualise al-Qa'ida with a rigidly organised membership. Some believe the network's fluid affiliations with militant groups that can share similar aims make it difficult to fight with conventional counter-terrorism techniques.

Peter Bergen, an al-Qa'ida analyst for CNN and author of Holy War Inc: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden, said: "This action speaks for itself. You've got Secretary of State Colin Powell arriving in the country. This attack happened. Prince Nayif, the minister of the interior, just last week said al-Qa'ida was weak or perhaps nonexistent in Saudi Arabia. Well, this is their answer.

"I am increasingly interested in seeing al-Qa'ida as an ideology rather than a network. I have always said writing its obituary was premature, and now we know it's really premature."

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