Saturday, November 24, 2001

CAIRO U.S. troops and Afghan bounty hunters may eventually track down Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants, but experts caution that won’t mean the end of his terrorist al Qaeda network.
One of the most serious threats, say the experts, comes from hundreds of Muslims who have over the past decade received military training at al Qaeda-run camps in Afghanistan and who later left to resume normal lives in their native countries. Many remained committed to the cause, becoming members of “sleeper” cells.
Another threat, they say, comes from veterans of the war against occupying Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Many of those men “feel nostalgia about the days of the war,” said Dia’a Rashwan, an expert on Islamic groups.
“They see what the United States is doing in Afghanistan as a world religious war in which Islam is one party and the other is a superpower that strikes without mercy. This puts before us a real possibility of these people organizing strikes against the United States, Britain or Israel.”
In the longer term, the experts say, bin Laden and his fighters could become a source of inspiration for Muslim militants the world over. Already bin Laden, the chief suspect in the September 11 attacks, is becoming something of a folk hero to young Arabs, appearing on posters at anti-U.S. rallies and figuring as a graphic on cell-phone screens.
The extent of the danger presented by sleeper cells was manifested when it became known that three of the four hijacker-pilots of September 11 lived quietly for years as students in Hamburg, Germany, while planning the attacks.
The suspected cell leader was Egyptian Mohamed Atta, who investigators say may have trained in Afghanistan during a two-year absence from Hamburg in the mid-1990s.
Arrests in Spain, France, the Netherlands, Canada, Britain and the United States in the two months since the attacks on America have unearthed other suspected al Qaeda cells in the West.
“The danger posed by al Qaeda will continue,” said Mohammed Salah, another expert on Islamic groups who writes for the London-based newspaper Al-Hayat. “The danger is in its network outside Afghanistan and not its fighters.”
The experts also said there was a possibility several al Qaeda leaders and fighters may have already escaped the dragnet by the United States and Afghanistan’s neighbors.
“Some of them will survive to fight another day,” said Rohan Gunaratna of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University, Scotland. “After their overwhelming defeat, they’ll start acting as any criminal organization does, and that is to move to another area where there are opportunities.”
Al Qaeda members who manage to escape Afghanistan would face the choice of either trying to find a new theater of holy war in, say, Chechnya, Kashmir or the Philippines places seen by many Muslims as battlefields against infidel oppressors or run the risk of trying to sneak back into their native countries, where many of them are wanted on terrorism charges. Some have death sentences hanging over their heads.
But the fighters of al Qaeda have proven they can forge travel documents and find places where they can live unnoticed.
After the 1989 Soviet pullout from Afghanistan and the subsequent civil war between the Afghan factions, many Arab fighters decided to leave rather than be a party to that conflict, finding refuge in places as far afield as Azerbaijan, Albania, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Thailand, Western Europe and even South America.
Seeking asylum in the West and using their stay there to form new cells, the experts say, may prove extremely difficult this time round, with such likely destinations as Britain, Germany or Spain significantly tightening security and anti-terrorism laws.
“The spirit must be broken, but al Qaeda has enough command structure to keep operating in a post-Afghanistan era,” Mr. Gunaratna said.

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