BEIRUT, Lebanon – The groups are small, little known and highly militant, with ideologies like al-Qaida’s. They have struck around the world, carrying out suicide bombings in Morocco, kidnapping civilians in Iraq and attacking Western residential compounds in Saudi Arabia.
The emergence of these groups is making the fight against terrorism more challenging. Instead of targeting one enemy — just al-Qaida — the West and its allies now face many “al-Qaidas,” splinter groups that are mostly unrelated to each other but are bound by the same hatred of the West — especially the United States and its allies, including Israel.
“It’s like McDonald’s giving out franchises,” said Dia’a Rashwan, an Egyptian expert on militant groups. “All they have to do is follow the company’s manual. They don’t consult with headquarters every time they want to produce a meal.”
A key conclusion in last month’s Sept. 11 commission report said that even though Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida has been weakened, its imitators pose a “catastrophic threat” to the United States.
“The enemy is not just ‘terrorism,’ some generic evil,” said the report. “The catastrophic threat at this moment in history is more specific. It is the threat posed by Islamist terrorism — especially the al-Qaida network, its affiliates and its ideology.”
“The second enemy is gathering, and will menace Americans and American interests long after … Bin Laden and his cohorts are killed or captured,” the report said.
Two recent sweeps have dealt a further blow to bin Laden’s network. At least 20 people have been detained in Pakistan in the past month, and Britain arrested more than a dozen men in raids this past week. British police on Thursday announced the arrest of another man, wanted in the United States for allegedly helping finance terrorist activity.
Yet bin Laden is still able to rattle the United States. That was highlighted Aug. 1, when Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge warned of possible terrorist attacks against “iconic” financial institutions in New York City, Washington and Newark, N.J. That is consistent with bin Laden’s strategy of striking at U.S. financial targets.
The different “franchises” act under different names. For instance, the group behind last month’s abduction of four Jordanians in Iraq called itself “Mujahedeen of Iraq, the Group of Death.” “Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula” is the umbrella group for militants active in the kingdom.
Some attacks have been blamed on one group or person, such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a former commander for bin Laden who has links to terror groups from North Africa to the Caucasus. Zarqawi is suspected in about a dozen high-profile attacks in Iraq, including last year’s bombing of the U.N. headquarters. Moroccan authorities believe he may have helped guide the Madrid train bombings in March.
But for the most part, the groups are believed to be independent. Although they don’t consult each other, they sometimes imitate tactics that have proved successful and brought publicity to other groups.
For instance, on March 31, Iraqi mobs dragged the burned corpses of four American contractors through the streets of the restive town of Fallujah. About a month later, four Saudi militants dragged the body of an American victim from the bumper of their car through the streets of the Saudi city of Yanbu.
In recent months, more than 70 foreigners have been kidnapped by insurgents in Iraq in a campaign aimed at pushing out international troops and companies backing U.S. troops and reconstruction efforts. Several have been decapitated or shot. In June, Saudi militants kidnapped an American engineer with Apache helicopter maker Lockheed Martin and beheaded him.
“It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if kidnappings are being successful in pressuring companies to leave Iraq … that similar tactics applied to Saudi Arabia will encourage expatriate workers in that country to leave and make that country more unstable,” said Jeremy Binnie, Middle East editor for Jane’s Sentinel Security Assessments magazine in London.
Experts say the pre-Sept. 11 al-Qaida is different from today’s al-Qaida. In the past, the network operated more like an organization with a head and several well-known bin Laden aides.
“Now what you find are remnants of al-Qaida,” said Kevin Rosser, an analyst with the London-based Control Risks Group. “There’s no central nervous system anymore. Al-Qaida is the kind of brand name that we’re giving to Islamic extremists of all kind, whether or not they’ve got real connection to bin Laden or any of his associates.”
Binnie said the report’s conclusion is “largely a recognition that … al-Qaida is actually more of a movement than a specific organization.”
“There’s a lot of … cross-pollination in terms of ideas and especially tactics,” he added. “You don’t have to formally talk to Osama bin Laden to adopt his ideology. … You can set up your own franchise without any real contact with the partner organization.”