- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 31, 2003

A heightened state of terrorist alert. Bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco. A lengthening list of casualties. Clearly, al Qaeda is alive and kicking. The United States has eliminated many of its senior leaders, arrested 3,000 operatives in more than 100 countries, and closed 50 training camps in Afghanistan. Yet its specter remains.

Why? Because, like a dangerous virus that becomes immune to a vaccine, al Qaeda is adapting to its post-Afghanistan environment. In many ways, we’re dealing with a new strain of al Qaeda — one that, as it evolves, becomes harder to kill.

With a re-energized recruiting drive for new members underway, the group’s face is changing, for one thing. Hostility toward U.S. policies abroad creates a breeding ground for converts. In the eyes of many Muslims, al Qaeda is seen as the one entity that can stand up to the world’s most powerful nation.

It’s smart enough, too, to buck the stereotype. As al Qaeda kingpin Khalid Shaikh Mohammed told U.S. interrogators, it’s hunting now for members who are American, female, black or married. It wants homeowners and law-abiding or legal visitors to the United States, such as Canadians. It seeks fresh acolytes who can beat the September 11, 2001, hijacker terrorist profile — young, Arab, single, middle-class and male.

The Casablanca bombings are instructive. The Moroccan terrorists were poor, uneducated, unemployed and without criminal records. They weren’t veterans of Afghanistan, Bosnia or Chechnya. They had no police files and were trained in Morocco, not Afghanistan. They were practically invisible to the Moroccan security services. No one suspected them. No wonder the bombings were a surprise.

A new generation of terrorists leaders are stepping up to replace those killed or incarcerated by anti-terrorist forces. Sometimes we know little of these new leaders. The mastermind of the Saudi bombing, for example, was previously considered by many intelligence experts to be a mere low-level operative.

Al Qaeda has not only new faces but new places. It has relocated its bases of operation after scattering like cockroaches under a kitchen light during the fall of Afghanistan. They have moved to locales where they blend in among sympathizers and supporters. Among their major new haunts: Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Yemen, Egypt, Pakistan, Chechnya, Kenya, Sudan and Iran. Smaller cells can be found in at least another 60 countries, including right here in the United States.

Of all the new operating bases, perhaps Iran is the most perplexing. Al Qaeda and the mullahs of Iran are not natural allies. In fact, they claim to be enemies. The Iranians are ethnically Persian while al Qaeda is generally Arab. Religiously, they also diverge in that the Iranians are Shi’ite and al Qaeda is predominantly Sunni Muslim. But to both, America is Public Enemy No. 1. The maxim “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” rings true here. International politics often make strange bedfellows, so why not al Qaeda and Iran?

Al Qaeda also is finding new ways to operate. Since 1988, it has built its finances on religious charities, mosques, and businesses that supported the jihad against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Although 166 countries have frozen $121 million worldwide over the past two years, progress has slowed lately due to the machinations of al Qaeda moneymen. The terrorist group has learned to circumvent the legitimate banking system by furtively moving finances through diamonds, gems, gold and narcotics.

Operatives of Hezbollah, an organization that before September 11 had killed more Americans than any terrorist group, were recently arrested in the United States for generating $2 million in profits by running tax-free cigarettes from Charlotte, N.C., to Detroit, Mich. Some suspect that al Qaeda, like Hezbollah, may be using the United States for fund raising.

Al Qaeda has new targets as well. In February, Osama bin Ladin named Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Pakistan as “oppressive, unjust, apostate, ruling governments” that had been “enslaved by America” and therefore “the most eligible for liberation.” He held true to his words with the recent attacks in Riyadh and Casablanca.

And Muslims and Islamic governments are no longer off-limits. Undefended civilian targets frequented by Muslims and “infidels” alike, such as businesses, restaurants and hotels, are in the cross hairs.

All this means one thing: We’ve got to adapt, too, if we’re to finally defeat al Qaeda. It won’t be easy, but it’s crucial we show our enemies that no disguise can fool us, no plan disrupt us, no location elude us. Our lives may depend on it.

Peter Brookes, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, is a senior fellow for national security affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

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