Tuesday, May 20, 2003

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AL QAEDA'S CURRENT STRENGTH(?): The attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, combined with the Bush administration's deliberations about raising the terror warning, prompts media reports that Al Qaeda is back in strength.

However, some reflection is in order. The AP reports that the Morocco attack suffered from some poor execution:

The suicide bombers attacked a Jewish community center when it was closed and empty. A day later, the building would have been packed.

Another attacker blew himself up near a fountain, killing three Muslims. He apparently mistook it for one near a Jewish cemetery not far away. The cemetery was undamaged.

These and other miscalculations indicate that the 14 suicide attackers who killed 28 people in Casablanca in five near-simultaneous assaults Friday were not as well-trained as first believed. One attacker survived and was arrested....

A high-level Moroccan official said that investigators suspect the bombings were the work of homegrown Islamic groups working on instructions from Al Qaeda.

This fact, combined with evidence that the Saudi attack was hastily arranged, suggests that Al Qaeda is more dependent than ever on its local affiliates, who are of varying degrees of quality in terms of their competence. The BBC has more:

But if al-Qaeda is still in business, it is not the al-Qaeda of 11 September 2001.

It has lost its base in Afghanistan. Thousands of suspected members have been arrested. Millions of dollars in assets have been frozen.

Although Bin Laden himself is probably still alive, about a third of his senior officials have been killed or captured.

All this has forced the organisation to change....

Local affiliates, which always had a certain degree of autonomy, may now be working on their own initiative.

Above all, al-Qaeda seems to have adapted to the fact that, for the moment at least, it is no longer able to hit high-profile Western targets.

If it was involved in last week's suicide attacks, as seems likely, then it is now focusing on "soft" targets in Muslim countries - rather than better protected ones in the West.

For al-Qaeda, this has a downside. In the latest attacks Muslims were among the dead and wounded, even if they were not the main targets.

This has shocked many Muslims around the world.

Christopher Hitchens uses punchier language:

In Saudi Arabia, which is a fertile place for anti-Western feeling of all sorts, they managed to kill a number of Saudi officials and bystanders while inflicting fairly superficial damage on Western interests. Widespread and quite sincere denunciation of this has been evident across Saudi society. While in Morocco, where the evidence for an al-Qaida connection is not so plain, whatever organization did set off the suicide attacks in Casablanca has isolated itself politically. Please try to remember that al-Qaida and its surrogates are engaged in a war with Muslims as well: They boast of attacking the West in order to impress or intimidate those Muslims who are wavering. But they are steadily creating antibodies to themselves in the countries where they operate.

This ties into my previous post.

It is possible that Al Qaeda is marshalling its remaining strength to attack a target in a Western country, and is therefore subcontracting its other operations to locals. I'm not saying they can be entirely written off. The point is, Al Qaeda may be adapting to new circumstances, but those new circumstances have weakened it more than the past week's media coverage suggests.


UPDATE: Brian Ulrich suggests a similar phenomenon occurring among Al Qaeda's affiliates in Central Asia. He also links to Juan Cole, who has some interesting thoughts on the spate of recent bombings.

posted by Dan on 05.20.03 at 01:57 PM