(IHT) Europe seems increasingly likely to be the target of the next major Qaeda attack, a trend that could intensify when scores of Qaeda-affiliated militants who left European countries to fight in Iraq return home, several top terror analysts said.
Europe is vulnerable in ways that the United States is not, said many of those attending what was described as the largest conference ever on Al Qaeda, the group behind the Sept. 11 attacks.
Europe’s large, growing and poorly integrated Muslim population, its prisons and fundamentalist mosques where extremism is nurtured and laws that constrain the European police more than their American counterparts are all factors, said the analysts, who included former CIA counterterror officials and foreign terror specialists.
Experts at the conference Thursday, sponsored by the nonprofit New America Foundation, said that they did not expect new attacks to match the breadth of the Sept. 11 attacks, in large part because of improved security. Instead, they expect more operations resembling the coordinated March 11 bombings in Madrid, which killed 191 people.
“We are blind to the real danger facing us,” said Marc Sageman, a former CIA case officer who worked in Islamabad, Pakistan, with the Afghan mujahedeen, where Osama bin Laden had his terrorist roots.
The danger, Sageman said, was not more Sept. 11-style attacks but “a succession of Madrids, Casablancas, Istanbuls” – smaller, but still highly deadly, coordinated attacks.
As many as 50 militants were known to have left Germany for Iraq, analysts said.
As that war winds down, they said, a phenomenon similar to what followed the Soviet-Afghan war can be expected. At that time, thousands of foreign militants left Afghanistan for home with new expertise in terrorism and weaponry and new links with like-minded extremists.
The same things that happened in Afghanistan “are happening at warp speed in Iraq,” said Peter Bergen, author of “Holy War, Inc.”
The two dozen panelists were divided on just how great a threat bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, still pose to the West.
Some said that Al Qaeda has been reduced to approving operations planned by spinoff groups; others said that there would be no meaningful Qaeda organization without the two top men. But there was general agreement that the splintered, transformed Al Qaeda of today has, in many ways, become a more dangerous organization than it was in the past.
The splintering actually was a measure of Al Qaeda’s success, said Steven Simon, a senior analyst at the RAND Corporation who previously was director of transnational threats on the National Security Council. The Sept. 11 attacks were so galvanizing, he said, that Al Qaeda could not handle the surge of recruits, so new groups sprouted.
“Europe has been ripening in this way for a long time,” Simon said.
Terror support groups that were tolerated in Europe before Sept. 11 have mutated into operational groups, said Rohan Gunaratna, author of “Inside Al Qaeda.” And Europe was “one of the most endangered zones,” the Singapore-based analyst said.
Ursula Mueller, a German diplomat with terror expertise, said that European-based terrorists were under pressure; terror operations have been averted in London, Paris and Madrid. “But they continue to focus on catastrophic attacks,” she said.
“There are indications,” Mueller said, “that Europe is at greater risk for terrorist attack than is the U.S.” – particularly U.S. allies with troops in Iraq, but also Germany, which has 2,200 troops in Afghanistan.
“The situation may become much more precarious,” said Greg Mascolo, Der Spiegel’s Washington bureau chief and author of “Inside 9-11.”
“Europe’s threat is growing from the inside,” Mascolo said.
Bruce Hoffman, author of “Inside Terrorism,” a standard text in the field, called Al Qaeda an “implacable and formidable foe” with an amazing ability to adapt and the patience to undertake a campaign “that they’ve recognized will take years, if not decades.”
After years of intense pressure it still has the ability to stage attacks – “a towering achievement of survival,” Simon said, adding, “Bin Laden has transformed a relatively small group of stone-cold Egyptian killers and Saudi eschatological lunatics” into a movement.
This change from a pseudo-army to a near-ideology meant that Al Qaeda had become “more difficult to defeat than it was on 9/11,” Hoffman said.
Michael Scheuer expressed visible impatience with any suggestion that bin Laden had become a mere “thug.” Scheuer, chief of the CIA Counterterrorist Center’s bin Laden unit until his resignation in November, made it clear he still feared catastrophic attacks on U.S. targets. “I’m really very pessimistic about where we stand with this war,” he said.
“Americans are going to die. And it’s going to bankrupt us at some point,” said Scheuer, who anonymously published a book on bin Laden, “Through Our Enemies’ Eyes,” before leaving the agency.
Bergen and others said that Al Qaeda, which originally aimed at political and military targets, had realized the importance of economic targets – such as the World Trade Center – and had made that shift effectively.
“Al Qaeda is beginning to have strategic successes,” said Bergen, who, while working for CNN, produced bin Laden’s first television interview. “Jacking up the price of oil is a strategic success,” as were the Madrid attacks and their apparent role in unseating a pro-American government, he said.
Bergen also referred to a new interest in attacking Israeli or Jewish targets, including the recent assault on Israeli tourists in the Egyptian resort of Taba.
But the United States, too, has had successes since Sept. 11, he and others said. There have been no serious terror attacks in the United States and, according to Bergen, there is no evidence of Qaeda cells in the country.
But Al Qaeda is nothing if not patient, the analysts generally agreed, and it will require more than present measures for the West to achieve long-term security.