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al-Qaida on the phone

Conference call reflects shift from mass to local attacks

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The new warninglast week ofpossible imminent attacks by al-Qaidafuelled fears far beyond America's borders. But the movement founded by Osama bin Laden has long since shifted from mass international attacks to local battles -- with success.

Bin Laden didn't make telephone calls. During his years in Abbottabad, Pakistan, he avoided anything that might have put intelligence agencies on his track, communicating only via messengers. But reporting published last week by two journalists at the website The Daily Beast suggests al-Qaida's current leadership has abandoned such precautionary measures.

It appears the reason for the closing of 21 American embassies from Yemen to Pakistan was an intercepted online conference call among the terrorist organization's Top 20. According to the article, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri took this opportunity to name Nasir al-Wuhayshi, head of the organization's Yemen branch, as his official second-in-command. Also participating in the call were al-Qaida leaders from Iraq, North Africa and Uzbekistan, as well as Pakistan's Taliban, Nigerian group Boko Haram and a representative of the emerging al-Qaida group in the Sinai Peninsula.

"This was like a meeting of the Legion of Doom," said one of three U.S. intelligence officers interviewed by The Daily Beast. During the virtual meeting, the article continued, the al-Qaida operatives also discussed future targets for attack and mentioned one or several teams were already in place for such attacks.

For the world's most wanted terrorists to meet for an online briefing precisely at the same time as the NSA scandal would seem to amount to a break with all the rules to which someone like al-Zawahiri owes his survival after two decades of being sought by U.S. intelligence agencies.

The article also presents a further inconsistency by assuming al-Qaida remains a centrally run organization -- and al-Zawahiri a leader everyone obeys -- despite internal tensions and the pressures of being wanted by intelligence agencies.

In reality, the portrayal contradicts developments observed in recent years, including an Aug. 7 United Nations analysis of al-Qaida and its associates -- the 14th report of its kind to be released. It states "al-Qaida's decimated core has seen no revival of its fortunes over the past six months. A degraded senior leadership based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region continues to issue statements, but demonstrates little ability to direct operations through centralized command and control."

Al-Zawahiri, the report continues, "has demonstrated little capability to unify or lead al-Qaida affiliates." In fact, it says, more of a threat is posed by individuals who commit attacks after self-radicalizing through online terrorist propaganda, such as the two Chechens who set off bombs at the Boston Marathon this spring. An additional danger, says the report, is that al-Qaida will take advantage of new conflicts such as the current war in Syria, which has given the terrorist organization "a significant boost."

European intelligence services take the same view. Syria has become the preferred destination for jihadists, who have arrived in the war-torn country by the thousands over the last 12 months. These fighters are the only ones coming to rebels' aid against the military machinery of the regime, which gives them devastating power.

And no one seems to want to stop them. On domestic flights to Hatay, in southern Turkey, bearded passengers from Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Russia's Caucasus republics sit side by side. They travel into Turkey unchallenged, then meet with comrades who bring them over the nearby border into Syria. Meanwhile, similar figures are lined up at Hatay's departure gates, carrying little luggage and often with the red dirt of northern Syria still clinging to their shoes.

Turkish authorities seem unbothered by these jihad tourists. At the border crossings, smugglers openly advertise their services. It's certainly strange in a way, a former Syrian follower of "Emir" Asadullah al-Shishani said in June from the jihadist stronghold of Atmeh, near the Turkish border. "A month ago, a dozen Chechens flew back home from Hatay unchallenged, even though they'd told us they were all wanted by Interpol."

Al-Qaida's diffuse ideology of perpetual warfare gives the organization the tactical advantage of being able to be present at various conflicts simultaneously. Its individual branches feed like parasites off a variety of opponents. In Yemen, they fight against the government's army and the United States; in Syria against Bashar Assad's Alawite dictatorship and the Kurds; in Mali against the government and the Tuareg; in Iraq primarily against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite government.

Bin Laden's one-time maxim of meeting the "distant enemy" in the United States and Europe has been replaced by the principle of appropriating local conflicts of many different kinds.

-- Der Spiegel

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 17, 2013 D6

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