How al-Qa'ida has split into dozens of autonomous, hard-to-find 'franchises'

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The Afghan war was meant to deprive al-Qa'ida of the protection of its Taliban allies and destroy it as a fighting force. But the Istanbul bombings are the latest example of how the organisation has reinvented itself to continue its jihad.

The Afghan war was meant to deprive al-Qa'ida of the protection of its Taliban allies and destroy it as a fighting force. But the Istanbul bombings are the latest example of how the organisation has reinvented itself to continue its jihad.

Al-Qai'da has proved to be a many-headed hydra. One was decapitated in Afghanistan, with many of Osama bin Laden's senior lieutenants killed or captured, and much of its financial resources uncovered and blocked. But the organisation has now sprung up again in a number of countries in a franchised form. The recent attacks in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya and, possibly, Iraq show that smaller organisations, often with fighters trained in al-Qa'ida camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan, are able to carry out operations without overt help from Bin Laden.

According to Western and Arab intelligence sources, the pattern emerging is of the remnants of the al-Qa'ida leadership, in their bases in the Afghan-Pakistan frontier, requesting missions to be carried out, at suggested times and regions, and leaving the details of the attacks to local bodies.

The evolution poses a difficult challenge for the West. Instead of facing a few defined, recognised targets, they have to cope with dozens of small groups that are much more difficult to trace and attack.

While two attacks - the 12 May and 9 November suicide bombings in Riyadh - appear to be the work of al-Qa'ida, other operations show different terror groups at work.

A new group, the Islamic Great East Raiders Front, claimed responsibility for Thursday's car bombing in Istanbul. Jemaah Islamiah, a better known al-Qai'da affiliate, took responsibility for a suicide bombing in August at the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, in which 12 died. And within 48 hours of the May attack in Riyadh, four other missions were carried out by little-known groups in Pakistan, Morocco and the Philippines, killing scores of people.

Rohan Gunaratna, of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore, described the al-Qa'ida camps as "a terrorist Disneyland, where you could meet anyone from any Islamist group". British and US security sources say around 20,000 people from 47 countries passed through the al-Qa'ida camps from the mid-1990s until the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001.

Western security agencies say they are seeing new similarities in the groups' communication techniques and the use of explosives. For example, al-Qa'ida members are believed to have taught have taught individuals from other groups how to use the internet to send encrypted messages to avoid detection. Bomb and chemical-making techniques also appear to have been passed around, with investigators finding the same kind of fuse being used on different continents.

The financial structure of terrorism also has shifted, with many of the local groups rely on petty crime, drug trafficking and extortion, unable to draw on the web of organisations and donors that have supported al-Qa'ida. Because the groups are hitting softer targets in less sophisticated attacks, money is less of an obstacle.

Michael Pillsbury, a Pentagon terrorism consultant, argued that the evolution of the terrorist groups is analogous to a process of corporate merger and acquisition. Regionally focused groups with their own agendas join with al-Qa'ida to learn their operational techniques or use their contacts, but are not subordinate to it.

For example, Jemaah Islamiah seeks to create a pan-Islamic state in Asia, an agenda that has little to do with driving US forces out of Saudi Arabia or other goals of Bin Laden's. "They like to get advice and equipment from al-Qa'ida but still have their own political agenda," Mr Pillsbury argued.

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