- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

Al Qaeda and its terrorist allies remain a potent threat, but their failure to carry out a successful strike during the U.S.-led military campaign to topple Saddam Hussein has raised questions about their ability to carry out major new attacks.The fears of senior Bush administration officials and private terrorism analysts that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden would attempt to “hijack” Muslim opposition to the Iraq war with a spectacular new attack have proved unfounded, even with American generals now occupying Saddam’s Baghdad palaces.”I think their credibility is increasingly on the line the longer we go without a successful terrorist strike,” said Mark Burgess, director of the Terrorism Project at the Center for Defense Information.”We know al Qaeda is a patient lot, but I don’t know if they can afford to be too patient,” he said. “Bin Laden made a lot of noise before the war about defending the Iraqi people, and so far there’s nothing to show for it.”Despite a few suicide bombings that targeted U.S. forces in Iraq, speculation that Saddam’s regime would resort to widespread terrorist attacks to disrupt the coalition campaign also did not pan out.The link between the war in Iraq and the larger post-September 11 war on terrorism has been one of the most contested battlegrounds in the debate over toppling Saddam. The administration and its supporters argued that Saddam’s regime had operational links and a common purpose with al Qaeda’s campaign against the West. More broadly, they said, forceful action against Baghdad and its reported weapons of mass destruction would send a powerful message of American resolve to hostile terrorist groups and the regimes that tolerate them.War supporters say the swift and relatively bloodless “decapitation” in Iraq has delivered just such a message.”We have succeeded in Afghanistan and Iraq,” said columnist Charles Krauthammer, a leading war backer, at an American Enterprise Institute forum this week, “and we have problems with only three major states right now: Syria, Iran and North Korea.”All three regimes, he said, have shown signs of seeking to ease U.S. concerns in the days since Saddam’s regime collapsed.”If we can change the behavior or the composition of the regimes in these three countries, then terror — the swamp in which it exists, the strength it draws — would be deeply changed,” Mr. Krauthammer said. “The support structure for terrorism would be radically weakened and we could be in a position of declaring success” in the war on terrorism within a few years.The coordinated rhetorical volleys by President Bush and his most senior aides aimed at Syrian President Bashar Assad last week were the first attempt to leverage the U.S. success in Iraq with pressure on another regime on the State Department’s list of sponsors of terrorism, according to one senior U.S. official.Despite international divisions over the war in Iraq, U.S. and allied intelligence services proved they could still score successes in the global war on terrorism while taking on Saddam.Counterterrorism analysts say the arrest of al Qaeda operations chief Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in Pakistan just days before the war began is the most damaging blow to al Qaeda since the loss of its Afghanistan training bases when U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban.No U.S. official is ready to declare the war on terrorism won, and administration spokesmen said both Iraqi intelligence agents and al Qaeda operatives tried and failed to carry out attacks during the war.State Department spokesman Richard Boucher revealed late last month that operatives from the United States and two friendly Middle East intelligence services had broken up terrorist attacks planned by Iraqi agents posing as diplomats.Also, United Press International reported this week that U.S. and allied intelligence services disrupted a number of al Qaeda operations aimed at U.S. troops in the Gulf region during Operation Iraqi Freedom.The State Department issued a worldwide warning Monday that terrorist attacks on U.S. citizens may increase in the short term because of the situation in Iraq. It closely tracked previous warnings but was the first official caution since fighting began March 19.Bin Laden, in a Feb. 14 taped message to followers that is believed to be authentic, predicted that there would be “fear, cowardliness and the absence of combat spirit” among U.S. troops and stressed the “importance of martyrdom operations against the enemy.”The Bush administration still faces a long agenda of unfinished business in the terrorist fight, with bin Laden still at large, suspected terrorist cells still operating in North America, Europe and East Asia, and increasing security woes along the unstable border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.Afghan leader Hamid Karzai has traveled to Pakistan to press President Pervez Musharraf to crack down on efforts by Taliban and al Qaeda operatives to filter back into Afghanistan and undermine the U.S.-backed government’s authority.Terrorism experts agree that there are plenty of battles left to fight in the war on terrorism.Although Syria has made conciliatory noises and closed its borders to fleeing Iraqi officials, the idea that Damascus will end its support for anti-Israel terrorist groups such as Hezbollah — dubbed the “A-team of terrorism” by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage — because of U.S. pressure is a “fantasy,” according to Yonah Alexander, director and senior fellow at the Arlington-based International Center for Terrorism Studies.Mr. Alexander said the short-term effects of the U.S. military success has put a clear dent in terrorist activity, but the humiliation and shock felt across the Islamic world could prove a potent recruiting tool for anti-U.S. terrorist groups over the long run.Terrorist groups such as al Qaeda “need motivation and they need capabilities, and they still have both. If Iraq doesn’t rebound quickly, I would expect al Qaeda and its allies to try to exploit the situation. It took centuries to defeat the Christians in the Crusades, and this is a group that has patience.”

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