Attacks Indicate al Qaeda Remains Weak

7 MINS READMay 17, 2003 | 18:42 GMT
A string of bombings in Morocco — coming in the wake of similar attacks in Chechnya, Riyadh and Karachi — suggest a coordinated program of attacks is under way, likely orchestrated by al Qaeda. However, the nature of the attacks suggests that al Qaeda remains disabled at the high and mid-levels, and has resorted to semi-autonomous operations by local cells to demonstrate its continued effectiveness. This is a low-impact, short-term strategy, and will be successful in achieving al Qaeda's ends only if it generates a disproportionate response from Western governments and media.
At least 41 people were killed during a series of suicide bombings late May 16 in the center of Casablanca. Targets included a Jewish community center, an international hotel, the Belgian consulate and a Spanish restaurant. Most of the victims were Moroccans, but a least a half a dozen Europeans victims have been identified so far. Three Moroccan suspects are reportedly in custody, and no group has claimed responsibility for the attack as of this writing. Three explanations for the Casablanca attacks spring to mind. First, they could have been the work of amateurs who were inspired by the recent Riyadh, Chechnya and Karachi attacks to carry out actions of their own. The trouble with this explanation is that there just hasn't been enough time to put together a network and carry out the integrated planning necessary to conduct a series of closely spaced attacks. And the indoctrination necessary to motivate not one but a group of suicide attackers requires still more time. Therefore, the first conclusion is that this had to have been the work of a pre-existing network. Second, it is possible that this was the work of a network outraged over an issue that may not be directly related to the U.S. war with al Qaeda. Morocco has a history of disputes with Algeria, and its occupation of Western Sahara has incited a continual low-level conflict with the Polisario separatist movement. Moreover, the growth of conservative Islamic factions among the populace also is putting pressure on the regime. One reason to suspect the attacks were the work of a group other than al Qaeda is the fact that Belgian and Spanish, rather than U.S. targets, were struck. Belgium openly opposed the U.S.-led war on Iraq, and though Spain supported the war, it played a tertiary role to the United States and Britain. It is conceivable that Spanish assets might have been targeted because of its colonial legacy in Morocco and the recent conflict over the Perejil islands. But, while Belgium and Spain may not have been central to recent U.S. actions in the Middle East, they have been active against Islamic militant networks in Europe — so they may be targets on al Qaeda's list, albeit lower-grade targets of opportunity. This raises the third possibility: Given that the Moroccan attacks come on the heels of attacks in Chechnya, Riyadh and Karachi, we may be seeing a pattern emerge. STRATFOR has argued that al Qaeda has entered a critical period, during which it must demonstrate that it remains viable and effective. Since the attacks on New York and Washington, the United States has taken the initiative, destroying two regimes and entrenching itself militarily in the Middle East. The United States and its allies have broken up al Qaeda networks, arrested their sympathizers and seized their funds. Al Qaeda's response has been so minimal as to suggest the organization is no longer functional. While each of the attacks could be explained as isolated and driven by local issues, the steady stream of attacks — all at least peripherally related to al Qaeda's war with the United States and its allies — suggests a coordinated program of attacks is under way, likely coordinated by al Qaeda. Chechen rebels are consumed with their fight with Russia, but they are known to have received funding and training from al Qaeda. Pakistani Islamist militants are intimately linked to al Qaeda, as are militants in Saudi Arabia. Both countries are on the front lines of the U.S.-al Qaeda war. And Morocco is reasonably pro-U.S. Last year, three suspected al Qaeda operatives — all Saudis — were arrested in Casablanca on suspicion of planning to bomb U.S. and British warships in the Strait of Gibraltar. They were sentenced this year to 10 years in prison for their roles in the plot. If indeed the Moroccan and other attacks turn out to be the work of al Qaeda or its sympathizers, we can see a new strategy emerging. In Chechnya, Riyadh, Karachi and now Morocco, they are hitting soft targets of opportunity. They are selecting targets of least resistance like gas stations and restaurants, poorly defended civilian residential compounds and countries on the periphery of security efforts. Additionally, they are not targeting exclusively U.S. or, in the case of Chechnya, Russian citizens; they are hitting any Westerner, and appear unconcerned about collateral damage among the local Muslim population. The militants do not seem to be worried about getting the most bang for their buck: They are not selecting the best targets or concentrating the most force on destroying those targets. They appear merely to be hitting the targets against which they have the best chance of inflicting some damage. This is a different approach to that taken in the past in the United States and at the Kenyan and Tanzanian embassies. However, their strategy change may not be voluntary: The attackers may, in fact, be getting the most bang for their buck. They simply may lack the resources and infrastructure to carry out major attacks, and are instead doing the best they can with what they have. They are relying on small plots with relatively simple planning and logistical requirements, well within the means of autonomous local cells. These attacks are reminiscent of the strikes on the USS Cole or the French tanker in Yemen — the work of independent locals with the blessing of al Qaeda leadership. All this suggests that al Qaeda has still not regenerated at the top level. Commanders may have issued orders to cells they believe are still intact to do the best they can — substituting lots of small attacks for one or more big dramatic attack. If they are taking this approach, they are burning a lot of resources. They are using up their remaining operational cells in hopes of making up in tempo what they lack in magnitude. This means we can expect a handful of additional attacks of similar magnitude. Given the distribution of al Qaeda resources and the new focus on soft targets, we would expect at least one attack in Southeast Asia, and possibly others in Europe or Latin America. There could easily be additional attacks in the Middle East and South Asia. But this campaign will quickly burn out. Al Qaeda is not husbanding its resources, it is using them up in hopes of appearing bigger and more effective than it remains. Al Qaeda must get its point across before it runs out of useful cells, since at the end of this campaign, the network will still have its core apparatus to rebuild and will have to replace its operative cells as well. Incidentally, as this campaign proceeds, there likely will be a lot of communications between the core and peripheral groups. Warnings before the Saudi and Moroccan attacks suggest that the United States is receiving some intelligence, close to real time, though not yet sufficiently detailed to prevent the attacks. The Casablanca attack came a day after U.S. warnings that an al Qaeda attack might be imminent, possibly in Africa. And U.S. officials called for security to be beefed up at a specific site in Riyadh just prior to the coordinated attacks on May 13. With each communications intercept and with the evidence and survivors left behind in the attacks, now is a prime opportunity for U.S. and allied intelligence services to nab some senior al Qaeda leaders.

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