Great Seal of the United States National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States

Third public hearing of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States

Statement of Rohan Gunaratna to the
National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States
July 9, 2003

The Rise and Decline of Al Qaeda


Five factors contributed to the rise of Al Qaeda:

  • First, the inevitability of history - Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in December 1979, US assistance to the anti-Soviet multi-national Afghan campaign, and the resultant growth of Islamism.

    The defeat of the "communist army" by the ideology of Islamism (and material support from the West and the Middle East) reinforced the belief that the United States, the remaining superpower too could be defeated through guerrilla warfare and terrorism. As the proclaimed vanguard of the struggle, Al Qaeda attacked America's most outstanding economic, military and political landmarks on September 11, 2001, to show the way to the Islamic movements, that the US too could be attacked and destroyed.

  • Second, the international neglect of Afghanistan, especially by the US after Afghanistan, the frontline state had won the free world the greatest victory after the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.

    After the gravity of terrorism shifted from the Syrian controlled Bekka Valley in Lebanon to Afghanistan, the war-ravaged country evolved into a "terrorist Disneyland" hosting training and operational infrastructure for three-dozen Islamist groups. Until US led coalition intervention in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, Afghanistan trained several tens of thousands of terrorists and guerrillas.

  • Third, the US policy of disengagement and at times isolation from world affairs, facilitating terrorist groups to grow in strength, size and influence worldwide and their state sponsors a free reign.

    When critical, US government engaged other governments not publics. The US government is reluctant, unable, and unwilling to engage in public diplomacy especially in the Muslim World. The American leaders must understand that future threats to the United States will be primarily from non-state actors spawned, strengthened and influenced by virulent ideologies preached non-governmental leaders.

  • Fourth, the international community gravely failed to develop a proactive and a sustained policy to fight global terrorism until 9-11.

    While most terrorist groups originated in Asia, Africa, Middle East, and Latin America, they established state-of-the-art support networks for disseminating propaganda, raising funds and procurement in Western liberal democracies where freedom of association, movement, demonstration and protest are constitutionally protected. As the support generated by these groups primarily aimed at replacing the Middle Eastern, Asian, African and Latin American regimes, North America, Europe and Australasia did not perceive these groups as a threat to them. To conduct 9-11, Al Qaeda recruited its suicide pilots from the heart of Europe, trained them in the United States and built a bridge that moved ideas, men and funds from pre-modern Afghanistan to post-modern US.

  • Fifth, the United States of America, pre-eminent global political, military, diplomatic and military power, gravely failed to fight Al Qaeda when it was apparent that it was a question of time that the terrorist group will conduct a mass casualty attack inside the US.

    Immediately after Al Qaeda attacked the US embassies in East Africa in August 1998, the CIA accurately assessed that Al Qaeda will strike inside the United States and may even use CBRN weapons. As the US government had weakened their covert capabilities to intervene in conflict zones throughout the 1980s and 1990s, there was primarily an operational failure not an intelligence failure. When responding to Al Qaeda, US actions were flawed and weak. In response to the Al Qaeda attacks on East Africa, the US fired 70 cruise missiles, which did not in any way reduce the threat to the US. In response to the Al Qaeda attack on the USS Cole in October 2000, the US did not taking any meaningful step to target and destroy Al Qaeda organization. There was no public support to fight Al Qaeda, essentially inducting ground troops into Afghanistan, replacing the Taliban regime and neutralizing the Al Qaeda leadership.


Since the emergence of the contemporary wave of terrorism in the Middle East in 1968, the world has witnessed three categories of terrorist organizations - ideological (left and right wing), ethnonationalist (irredentist, separatist, autonomy) and politico-religious groups. Of these three waves, the politico-religious groups, especially the Islamist groups pose the single biggest threat. Two landmark events - the Islamic revolution in Iran - and Soviet intervention in Afghanistan - both in 1979 marked the emergence of the contemporary wave of Islamist guerrilla and terrorist groups. While Iran's clerical regime held 66 Americans as hostages for 444 days in Tehran, the anti-Soviet multinational Afghan campaign checkmated the world's largest army - the Soviet army in a protracted guerrilla campaign that latest a decade. While an Islamic regime defied one superpower in the Middle East, an Islamic movement defeated another superpower in Afghanistan. In response to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (December 1979-February 1989), US presence in the Arabian Peninsula (December 1990), Gulf War I (January 1991) and the US-led coalition occupation of Iraq (March 2003- ___), Islamism grew in strength, size and influence. As a result, virulent and extremist ideologies found greater acceptance, existing Islamist political parties and terrorist groups became more influential, and new Islamist organizations proliferated.

Since its foundation in March 1988, one year before Soviet troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, Al Qaeda built a "network of networks." By co-opting leaders of like-minded Islamic movements, Al Qaeda build an umbrella of which Osama bin Laden gradually assumed the leadership. In its earlier life - Maktab - il -khidamat (Afghan Service Bureau) - established in 1984, it built a global network that channeled resources and recruits from around the world to Afghanistan. After defeating the Soviet Army, the largest land army in the world, and stripping the Soviet Empire of its super power status, the Islamists aimed its sights at the remaining superpower - the United States of America. As the vicious by product of the anti-Soviet multinational Afghan campaign, Al Qaeda had inherited a state-of-the-art training infrastructure, wealthy sponsors, proven trainers, experienced combatants and a vast support base stretching from Australia throughout the Muslim world into Canada.

After its victory against the Soviet army in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Al Qaeda transformed from a guerrilla group to a terrorist group capable of operating in urban terrain and targeting civilians after its headquarters relocated from Peshawar, Pakistan, to Khartoum, Sudan in December 1991. After the 1993 meeting in Khartoum, between Osama bin Laden and Imad Mugneyev, the head of the Special Security Apparatus of Hezbollah, the most dangerous terrorist group at that time, Al Qaeda members and recruits received terrorist instruction in Sudan and Southern Lebanon. The camps in Sudan were sponsored and conducted by the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security Affairs (MOIS) and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). As the Taliban regime perceived the clerical regime in Iran as inimical, Iranian sponsorship declined after Osama bin Laden relocated from Sudan to Afghanistan in May 1996. Nonetheless, ten percent of phone calls from Osama's phone purchased from Deer Park, New York, went to Iran from 1996-1998. State sponsors of Al Qaeda included Sudan until 1996 and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan until 2001. There is no credible evidence of the Iraqi dictator Saddam or the Baghdad regime sponsoring Al Qaeda.

The Context:

Al Qaeda has suffered formidable losses since September 11, 2001. Over 3200 leaders, members and key supporters of Al Qaeda has been killed or captured in 102 countries since the United States of America's declared "War on Terrorism." Nonetheless, the robust Islamist milieu, in which Al Qaeda operates, has enabled the group to replenish its human losses - members captured and killed- and material wastage - assets seized and funds frozen. Furthermore, having imparted guerilla and terrorist training to several tens of thousands of Islamists from around the world in its camps in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda built sufficient strategic depth worldwide for the generation of support and recruits. As a well-endowed and well-resourced group from its inception, Al Qaeda invested in creating a cadre of highly dedicated and committed fighters willing to kill and die in the name of religion. Whether they live in the West or the East, Al Qaeda supporters and sympathizers believe in the often repeated Al Qaeda dictum: "It is the duty of every Muslim to wage jihad."

Despite the US led intensive and sustained global hunt, Al Qaeda continues to present an unprecedented threat. Its unique historical origins, religious character, and organizational structure guarantees its sustenance and survival. When compared with all the other terrorist groups we have been studying since the emergence of the contemporary wave of terrorism in 1968, Al Qaeda is different in composition, diversity, and reach. With the exception of Aum Shinrikyo of Japan, Al Qaeda is the first multinational terrorist group of the 21st century. It has recruited from the Muslim territories of Asia, Africa, Middle East, Caucuses and the Balkans as well as the Muslim migrant and diaspora communities of Europe, North America and Australia. In contrast to other groups that recruited from one single nationality or groupings of nationalities from one particular region, Al Qaeda is truly multinational. Despite global efforts to detect, disrupt, degrade and destroy Al Qaeda, the group has survived because it has a global presence. Periodically it has attacked symbolic, strategic and high profile targets across geographic regions to make its presence known to its support base and to its enemies. Its capacity to survive is largely due to its loosely networked structure, diverse composition and universal ideology. To counter and evade the growing threat to Al Qaeda, the group itself has transformed structurally, strategically and geographically. Al Qaeda is global in reach, from Asia to Canada; multi-national in composition, from Uigurs in Xingjiang to American Hispanics; and therefore, enjoys diverse capabilities, access to resources, and multiple modus operandi. There is not standard textbook for fighting Al Qaeda. As such to effectively destroy a group like Al Qaeda, a global approach and a global strategy is a pre-requisite.

Post-9-11 Al Qaeda:

Today, Al Qaeda is in a period of transition. It has lost its base - Afghanistan - and its host, the Islamic Movement of the Taliban, the ruling party of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. More significantly, the death or capture of at least half its operational leaders, members and key supporters has dented its operational effectiveness. Despite the dismantling of its training and operational infrastructure in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda remains a serious, immediate and a direct threat to its enemies. Although Al Qaeda's physical and personnel infrastructure worldwide has suffered, its multi layered global network still retains sufficient depth to plan, prepare and execute operations directly and through associate groups. By ideologically and physically penetrating a number of regional conflicts where Muslims participate, Al Qaeda's decentralized network works with like-minded groups. With sustained action by the US, its allies and its friends in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the core of Al Qaeda, its organizers of attacks, trainers, financiers, operatives and other experts are moving to lawless zones of Asia, Middle East, Horn of Africa and the Caucuses.

Like a strike on a hive of bees, Al Qaeda members are gravitating seeking new bases in Mindanao in the Philippines, Bangladesh-Myanmar border, Yemen, Somalia, Pankishi Valley in Georgia and Chechnya. Like sharks rapidly moves in search of new opportunities, post-9-11 Al Qaeda cells survive and strike on opportunity. After identifying the weaknesses and the loopholes of the new security architecture, a constantly probing Al Qaeda is likely to infiltrate. While retaining a presence in Afghanistan, post 9-11 Al Qaeda members are active and its fresh recruits train in the conflict zones. For Al Qaeda, regional conflicts are healthy green houses to rebuild, regroup, and strike.

Although Al Qaeda as an organization per se has suffered, it is still retaining its pioneering vanguard status of the Islamic movements. In keeping with its founding charter authored by its founder leader Dr Abdullah Azzam, Al Qaeda remains the spearhead of the Islamic movements. Despite repeated high quality losses, Al Qaeda is still able to set the ideological and operational agenda for three-dozen foreign Islamist groups it trained and financed during the last decade. Al Qaeda is able to preserve its global status by relying on its associated groups to sustain its fight against the US, its allies and its friends. To compensate for the loss of its state-of-the-art training infrastructure in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda is exploiting the Islamic movements within its ideological, military and financial spheres of influence. Until US intervention in October 2001, the international neglect of Afghanistan turned the country into a "terrorist Disneyland" with about 40 Islamist groups receiving both guerrilla and terrorist training throughout the 1990s. These Asian, Middle Eastern, African and Caucasian groups, hitherto fighting local campaigns, influenced by Al Qaeda's vision of a global jihad, today pose a threat comparable to Al Qaeda.

The post 9-11 trajectory of Al Qaeda operations demonstrate its staying power. With sustained US and allied action in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Al Qaeda has an infinite capacity to change its shape. In the coming months, Al Qaeda will fragment, decentralize, regroup in lawless zones of the world, work with like-minded groups, select a wider range of targets, focus on economic targets and population centers, and conduct most attacks in the global south. Although the group will be constrained from conducting coordinated simultaneous attacks against high profile, symbolic or strategic targets in the West, Al Qaeda together with its regional counterparts will attacks in Asia, Africa, Middle East, and even in Latin America, a region where it only has a limited presence. Despite the likely capture or death of its core and penultimate leaders, Al Qaeda's anti-Western universal jihad ideology inculcated among the politicized and radicalized Muslims will sustain support for Al Qaeda.

While its organizers of attacks will remain in Pakistan and Iran, its operatives and messengers will travel back and forth coordinating with Al Qaeda nodes in safe zones such as Yemen, Somalia, Bangladesh, Philippines and Chechnya. To make its presence felt, Al Qaeda will increasingly rely on its global terrorist network of groups in Southeast Asia, South Asia, Horn of Africa, Middle East, and the Caucuses to strike at its enemies. Already attacks in Kenya, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Kuwait and Yemen seek to compensate for the loss and lack of space and opportunity to operate in the West. Its operatives are currently working together with Jemmah Islamiyah (JI: Southeast Asia), Al Ithihad al Islami (Horn of Africa), Al Ansar Mujahidin (Caucuses), Tunisian Combatants Group (Middle East), Jayash-e-Mohommad (South Asia), Salafi Group for Call and Combat (GSPC, North Africa, Europe and North America) and other Islamist groups it had trained and financed in the past decade. As Al Qaeda has a very small number of cells in the West, the group will operate through the GSPC and Takfir Wal Hijra - two groups it had infiltrated in Europe and North America. With the transfer of terrorist technology and expertise from the centre to the periphery, the attacks by the associated groups of Al Qaeda is posing a threat comparable to Al Qaeda.

The fragmentation of Al Qaeda support and operational infrastructure under sustained military and law enforcement action is making it rely on its strategic linkages, diversity, and global reach. The decentralization of Al Qaeda has contributed to its flexibility of targeting. Despite being the most hunted terrorist group in history, its cellular structure, rigid compartmentalization, and the robust Islamist milieu, ensures its resilience to destruction. With sustained military action in Afghanistan, the threat of terrorism has diffused increasing the threshold for political violence worldwide. The new threshold terrorism is a multidimensional, complex, and a global challenge. Despite sustained attrition of Islamist networks since October 2001, their high capacity for replenishing losses by regenerating fresh support and recruits has ensured the continuity of the intellectual and operational capabilities of Qaeda. As such, many governments and publics will have to live with a medium to high threat index for several years in different parts of the world.

Current Situation:

In response to the high threat to Al Qaeda, the group is becoming more creative and lethal. The group is adapting dual technologies - airplanes, commercially available chemicals, agricultural fertilizers, liquid petroleum gas, and liquid nitrogen gas - as its new weapons. The group is also searching for new weapons such as chemical and biological agents especially contact poisons easy to conceal and breach security. Both Osama's statement in February 2003 "think intelligently and kill the American's secretly and in May 2003, Sheikh Nasr bin Hamid al Fahd's fatwa legitimizing the use of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons. Although an attempt to pervert Islam, it is likely that the Saudi Sheik presented Koranic justifications, a requirement in Islam, prelude to an attack. Reflecting the existing and emerging threat, Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of the British Security Services (MI5) said in London on July 17, 2003, that a terrorist attack on a Western city using chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) technology is "only a matter of time. She added: "We know that renegade scientists have cooperated with al Qaeda and provided them with some of the knowledge they need to develop these weapons." The Al Qaeda associate group - the Salafi Group for Call and Combat (GSPC) - successfully developed ricin, one of the contact poisons found in the Al Qaeda manuals and its rudimentary manufacturing apparatus in London in January 2003. The ricin network in Europe, especially in London, Manchester, East Anglia and Edinburgh in the UK, worked together with Al Qaeda experts in the Pankishi Gorge in Georgia, the border of Chechnya.

In the current environment, terrorist groups will continue to recruit and mission its members and supporters living in the West to support and conduct attacks. With the exception of the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma in 1995, almost all the major terrorist attacks in the West has been conducted by members of diaspora and migrant communities. The 9-11 coordinator Ramzi bin al Shibh and the suicide pilots were migrants living in the West. As foreign terrorist groups based in North America, Western Europe, and Australia did not pose a direct and an immediate threat to Western security until 9-11, these host governments tolerated their activity and presence. Even after 9-11, due to the reluctance of Europe, Canada, and Australia to disrupt terrorist support networks, terrorist organizations continue to target émigré communities for recruits and support. Other than Al Qaeda front, cover and sympathetic groups, other Islamist groups are aggressively politicizing, radicalizing and mobilizing their migrants and diaspora. Assif Mohammed Hanif, 21, and Omar Khan Sharif, 27, two British suicide bombers of Asian origin from Derbyshire, UK infiltrated Israel and attacked Mike's Place, a nightclub, on April 30, 2003. While Hanif detonated killing two musicians and one waiter and injuring 60, Sharif's explosives device failed to detonate. Since the 31-month uprising in Israel, Hanif's bombing was the first suicide attack by a foreigner. Similarly, in Asia, the first suicide bomber who targeted the State Assembly in Srinagar, Kashmir, was a British Muslim, also of Asian origin. The émigré communities remain vulnerable to ideological penetration, recruitment, and provision of financial support. Despite stepped up government surveillance, disenfranchised segments of the émigré' communities in Western countries still identify themselves with the struggles in their homelands. Until and unless, host governments develop a better understanding of the threat and target terrorist propaganda, both its tools and its ideologues, the threat to the West from within will persist.

As illustrated by the statements of both Osama bin Laden and his successor and deputy Dr Ayman Al Zawahiri, although Al Qaeda's capability to attack the West has diminished, its intention to attack has not. On October 6, 2002, Osama bin Laden, the Emir-General of Al Qaeda said: "I am telling you, and God is my witness, whether America escalates or de-escalates this conflict, we will reply to it in kind, God willing. God is my witness, the youth of Islam are willing are preparing things that will fill your hearts with tears. They will target the key sectors of your economy until you stop your injustice and aggression or until the more short-lived of the US die." Ayman Al Zawahiri said on Al Jazeera on October 8, 2002: "Our message to our enemies is this: America and its Allies should know that their crimes will not go unpunished, god willing. We advice them to hasten to leave Palestine, the Arabian Peninsula, Afghanistan, and all Muslim countries, before they loose everything. We addressed some messages to America's Allies to stop their involvement in its crusader campaign. The Mujahid youths have addressed a message to Germany and another to France. If these measures have not been sufficient, we are ready with the help of God, to increase them." In many ways their periodic pronouncements and statements are the best guide to future Al Qaeda actions.

Targeting Trends:

Having recruited from a cross section of society - the rich, the poor, the educated and the less educated, Al Qaeda has developed a reasonably good understanding of Western security measures and countermeasures. After the bombing of the US embassies in East Africa in August 1998, the US government enhanced the perimeter security of its land targets. Then Al Qaeda attacked USS Cole, a maritime target in October 2000. When the US government enhanced the perimeter of its land and maritime targets, Al Qaeda attacked America's icons from the sky. The tactical trajectory of Al Qaeda suggests a cunning foe always keen to harass, hurt, and humiliate the enemy by deception.

Al Qaeda's tactical repertoire was deeply influenced by the Iranian-sponsored Lebanese Hezbollah. Hezbollah modus operandi of coordinated simultaneous suicide attacks influenced Al Qaeda's modus operandi in a big way. As Al Qaeda's aim was also to force the withdrawal of US troops from the Arabian Peninsula, the group emulated the success of Hezbollah in Beirut in 1983 where the group forced the US led multinational peace keeping force to withdrew from Lebanon in 1983 following coordinated simultaneous suicide attacks on US and French targets. In the attack on its marine barracks, the US lost 243 personnel, the single biggest loss since Vietnam. As a result, for several years, the US disengaged itself from the politics of the Middle East. With the exception of the attack on the USS Cole, all the mega attacks by Al Qaeda has been coordinated simultaneous suicide attacks. For instance, Al Qaeda attacked the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998; attempted to destroy the Los Angeles international airport, Radisson Hotel in Amman, Jewish and Christian holy sites in Jordan, and the USS The Sullivans in Aden, Yemen on the eve of the Millennium; and attacked America's most outstanding economic and military and attempted to attack its political landmark on 9-11. Similarly Al Qaeda influenced its associated groups to conduct coordinated simultaneous attacks. For instance, Jemmah Islamiyah successfully attacked 16 churches in Indonesia on Christmas Day in 2000 and five targets in Manila, Philippines on December 30, 2000.

In the early 1990s, Al Qaeda's aim was to create Islamic states in the Middle East by targeting the false Muslim rulers and the corrupt Muslim regimes. After suffering significant losses, both its operatives and material, in the Middle East, Al Qaeda decided to abandon its policy of targeting near targets in favor of targeting the distant enemy - the West - especially the "head of the poisonous snake" - the USA. Gradually, Al Qaeda attacks escalated in intensity and sophistication - East Africa in August 1998, USS Cole in October 2000, and America's mainland on 9-11. The two wave attacks in October 2001 and May 2003 are major turning points. Today, Al Qaeda is returning to its near-targets in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the Caucuses. Having suffered significant losses to its support and operational infrastructure in North America, Western Europe and Australasia, the primary target countries, in the last two years, Al Qaeda is aggressively seeking Western and Jewish targets in the Muslim World.

Although attacking inside North America, Europe, Australasia and Israel remains a priority, Western security measures and countermeasures have made it expensive and difficult for Al Qaeda to mount an operation on Western soil. Nonetheless, Al Qaeda and its associate groups will attack Western targets outside the West where security is largely in the hands of foreign governments. Al Qaeda finds it less costly to operate in parts of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, where there is lack of security controls. Therefore, most attacks will be against Western targets located in the global south such as the attack in Saudi Arabia. While focusing on Western targets, Al Qaeda will continue to conduct operations against Muslim rulers and regimes supporting the US led "war or terror." The physical security of the Saudi royalty, Pakistani and Afghan leaders Musharaaf and Karzai respectively will remain particularly vulnerable and their regimes will come under sustained political challenges in the coming years.

With the hardening of US targets, the threat is shifting to both government and population targets of allies and friends of the US. Similarly, Al Qaeda is increasingly looking for opportunity targets. For instance, when Al Qaeda failed to target a US warship off Yemen, it targeted a French oil super tanker in October 2002. The hardening of government land and commercial aerial targets has shifted Al Qaeda targeting to both soft land and maritime targets. Although the primary intention of Al Qaeda is to target inside the US, it lacks the quality operatives of the Mohommad Atta caliber to operate inside the US. Therefore, Al Qaeda is targeting US land, sea and aviation overseas. Increased hardening of US military and diplomatic targets after 9-11 is steadfastly shifting the threat to other classes of targets. For instance, Al Qaeda cells in Morocco attempted to target both British and US shipping in the Straits of Gibraltar in mid 2002. Due to perimeter and structural hardening of Israeli and US embassies in Europe and Asia, Al Qaeda decided to target friends and allies of Israel and the US. More than ever before, today, the allies and the friends of the US are vulnerable to Al Qaeda attack.

Hardening of government targets will also displace the threat to softer targets making civilians prone to terrorist attack. For instance, Al Qaeda planned to attack US diplomatic targets in Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Phnom Penh, Hanoi and Manila, American Institute in Taiwan, and the US consulate in Surabaya in September 2002, but visible security presence made the group consider soft targets. Although not in all cases, hardening of targets works but as the world witnessed with horror, counter measures makes terrorists creative and innovative. As the traditional explosives laden vehicle was a non-option to breach the hardened perimeter security of America's most outstanding landmarks, Al Qaeda was forced to develop an aerial airborne capability. Similarly, hardening of military and diplomatic targets in Southeast Asia prompted Jemmah Islamiyiah to seek entertainment targets such as Bali. The reality is that government countermeasures have increased the vulnerability of population centers and economic targets. As Islamist groups weaken they are likely to hit soft targets, killing civilians, if possible in large number. As it is impossible to prevent bombing of public places, civilian and civilian infrastructure targets will remain the most vulnerable to terrorist attack in the immediate, mid and in the long term.

Hardening of land and aviation targets will shift the threat to sea targets particularly to commercial maritime targets. As any aviation incident attracts significant attention, Al Qaeda assigns a high priority to aviation-impact terrorism. Due to the difficulty of hijacking aircraft to ram them against targets, Al Qaeda will increasingly invest conducting stand off attacks and use hand held Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs). For instance, Al Qaeda Sudanese member fired a SA-7 missile at a US military transport plane at the Prince Sultan base in Saudi Arabia in mid 2001. His arrest in Khartoum in December 2001 led the Saudi authorities to recover another complete missile system buried in the Riyadh desert. If appropriate and immediate countermeasures are not taken to target the Al Qaeda shipping network, SAMs under Al Qaeda control held in the Pakistan-Kashmir-Afghanistan theatre, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Horn of Africa will find its way to the Far Asia and to Europe, and possibly even to North America. Protective measures, especially target hardening of vulnerable government personnel and infrastructure, by law enforcement and protective services is a temporary solution. To reduce the threat, governments have no option but to hunt terrorists and prevent public support and sympathy for terrorism.

The post 9-11 robust security architecture has forced Al Qaeda to transform its targeting strategy. Al Qaeda's capacity to conduct spectaculars or theatrical attacks has diminished due to three factors. First, heightened human vigilance. The high state of alertness of the public and law enforcement authorities has led to the disruption of several operations. For instance, the alert passengers and crew prevented the bombing of the transatlantic flight by Richard Reid, the Al Qaeda shoe bomber on board American Airlines 63 on December 22, 2001. Second, unprecedented law enforcement, security and intelligence cooperation and coordination. As a direct result of inter and intra agency cooperation a large number of suspects have been detained and arrested and over 100 attacks by Al Qaeda and its associated groups have been interdicted, prevented or abandoned since 9-11. Cooperation beyond the Anglo-Saxon countries, Europe and Israel, especially with the Middle East and Asia, has led to significant arrests. For instance, Jose Padilla, who intended to mount surveillance and reconnaissance to detonate a radiological dispersal device in Washington DC, en-route from Pakistan via Zurich was arrested at the Chicago O'Hare international airport in the US on May 8, 2002. Third, hunting Al Qaeda and its associate groups has limited their time, space and resources to conceptualise, plan and prepare elaborate terrorist strikes. As long as the international community can maintain the public vigilance, anti- and counter terrorism cooperation and coordination worldwide; and maintain sustained pressure on the group, Al Qaeda will not be able to mount large-scale coordinated simultaneous attacks on symbolic, strategic and high profile targets. Large attacks require long term planning and preparation by several operatives and across several countries. In the current security environment, where there are periodic desertions, arrests, and penetration, a terrorist group can only plan, prepare and execute medium to small-scale operations. Preventing complacency from setting in especially after a long period of Al Qaeda inactivity is difficult but it is a must if we are to prevent the next attack.

The nature of the Al Qaeda threat has clearly changed since 9-11. In comparison, the post 9-11 threat to the US, its allies and its friends is fragmented and diffused. Although it has no resources to carry out theatrical or spectacular attacks, it has a clandestine network to move, experts, messages and money to associate groups. All indications are that Al Qaeda is not deserting from the 1520-mile long Pakistan-Afghanistan border but its leadership is actively and aggressively tasking its membership and ideologizing associate groups. From the centre of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Al Qaeda's technical experts and financiers, organizers of attacks and operatives are gravitating to lawless zones in Asia, Horn of Africa, Caucuses, Balkans and the Middle East widening the perimeter of the conflict. The regional groups - such as Jemmah Islamiyah - and local groups - such as Islamic Army of Abyan Aden - are providing a platform for Al Qaeda to plan, prepare, and execute operations against targets of the West and Muslim countries friendly to the West. For instance, the attack on the French tanker Limburg was staged by Al Qaeda working with the Islamic Army of the Abyan in Aden. Similarly, the Bali bombing was staged by Jemmah Islamiya, working together with Al Qaeda experts. Likewise, in Pakistan, a dozen attacks has been conducted by Al Qaeda through individual members of Jaish-e-Mohommed, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Harakat-ul-Jihad-I-Islami, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, and Harakat-ul Mujahidin. A decentralized Al Qaeda working with Islamist and other groups worldwide is a force multiplier. In the years ahead, Al Qaeda - that has a long history of providing experts, trainers and funds to other groups - is likely to operate effectively and efficiently through their associates. To compensate for the losses suffered by the group, post-9-11 Al Qaeda operatives are heavily reliant on the social and familial contacts in associate groups. Therefore, mapping the family and social trees of leaders, members, supporters and sympathizers is key to understanding the deepening operational nexus between Al Qaeda and its associate groups. The nexus has manifested in tactical and opportunity targeting as well as the globalization of the terrorist strategy, developments that call for closer political, diplomatic, law enforcement, military, security and intelligence cooperation and coordination.


With US intervention in Afghanistan in October 2001, Osama bin Laden requested the bulk of the Al Qaeda members to travel to their home countries and await instructions. Those who had come to the adverse attention of their home security and intelligence agencies were asked to remain in Pakistan. Al Qaeda's operational leaders Abu Zubaidah and Khalid Sheikh Mohommad relocated to Pakistan and coordinated the global terrorist campaign until their arrests in March 2002 and May 2003 respectively. After the arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohommad's successor Tawfiq bin Attash, Osama bin Laden appointed his Chief of Security Seif Al-'Adel, as the new operations chief in April 2003. The May 2003 operations were executed by Seif Al-'Adel, a former officer of the Egyptian military, and thereafter a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. After fighting against the Soviet army, he joined Al Qaeda and thereafter trained with the Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon. Seif Al-'Adel was joined in the Riyadh operation by another senior member Abu Khaled, and Osama bin Laden's son Sa'ad bin Laden, a bodyguard of the Al Qaeda leader. Although the extent of Iranian sponsorship is unclear, the operational leadership that coordinated the Riyadh bombing and dispatched experts to Casablanca, Morocco, to advice Assirat al-Moustaquim was located in Iran. Due to the loss of a large number of Al Qaeda leaders and operatives in Pakistan, Al Qaeda is increasingly looking towards Iran. An Iraqi Islamist group Ansar al-Islami, another Al Qaeda associate group, is also operating on the Iran-Iraq border.

The international community has gravely failed to rebuild Afghanistan by transforming the war-ravaged state into a modern state of the 21st century. Al Qaeda has re-invented itself in Afghanistan by working with Mullah Omar's Taliban and Gulbaddin Hekmatiyar's Hezbi-e-islami. Similarly, Al Qaeda continues to work with Sipai Sahaba, Lashkar-e-jenghvi, Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jayash-e-Mohommad, Harakart-ul-Mujahidin and a number of other Pakistani groups. With US security forces and the intelligence community targeting Al Qaeda's nerve centre in Afghanistan-Pakistan, Al Qaeda will decentralize even further. While its organizers of attacks will remain in Pakistan and its immediate neighborhood, its operatives will travel back and forth coordinating with Al Qaeda nodes in the south. To make its presence felt, Al Qaeda will increasingly rely on its global terrorist network of like-minded groups in Southeast Asia, South Asia, Horn of Africa, Middle East, and the Caucuses to strike its enemies. Already attacks in Kenya, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Kuwait and Yemen seek to compensate for the loss and lack of space and opportunity to operate in Afghanistan. With the transfer of terrorist technology and expertise from the centre to the periphery, the attacks by the associated groups of Al Qaeda will pose a threat as great as Al Qaeda.

Outside Afghanistan and Pakistan, Al Qaeda members are concentrated in the Middle East, Horn of Africa, the Caucuses (Chechnya and Pankishi Gorge in Georgia) and in Asia. In the international intelligence community the Achilles Heel has always been Africa especially the Horn. Intelligence on the Horn has improved since August 1998 but not appreciably. While based in Sudan (December 1991-May 1996) having made significant inroads to the countries in East Africa, Al Qaeda continues to operate in the Horn. While the Russian military has sustained heavy losses in Chechnya, the US Special Operations Forces working with the Georgian forces are conducing operations to clear the gorge. In Djibouti, there are several hundred US personnel engaged in activities in the Horn of Africa and Yemen. In addition to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Al Qaeda elements have a presence throughout Asia. For instance, Al Qaeda members regularly infiltrate Kashmir and Bangladesh in South Asia. In addition to the Middle East, when it comes to regions, the Horn of Africa and Southeast Asia presents the biggest challenges. Even before the gravity of terrorism moved from the Middle East to Asia in the early 1990s, the Middle Eastern groups were active in Southeast Asia.

Ideological Threat

More than an organization, the ideology of Al Qaeda remains a resilient threat. Although Al Qaeda can still mount operations, with the increase in pressure, Al Qaeda will become relegated to an ideology. As Al Qaeda increasingly depends on like-minded groups to conduct attacks, other Islamist groups will become like Al Qaeda. For instance, Mas Salamat Kasthari, the Chief of Jemmah Islamiyah (JI) of Singapore was planning to hijack an Aeroflot plane from Bangkok and crash it to the Changi International Airport in Singapore in 2002. The tactic of using an air vehicle as a weapon was clearly an Al Qaeda invention. When asked by his interrogators why he chose to hijack an Aeroflot plane, he responded that JI had decided to teach Russia a lesson for killing civilians in Chechnya. Furthermore, the killing of 202 civilians in Bali by the same group was not Southeast Asian in character. Southeast Asia had never witnessed a mass fatality terrorist attack before. Likewise, the JI attack in Bali witnessed the first suicide attack by a Southeast Asian terrorist. During the past decade, JI and other associated Islamist groups had come under Al Qaeda influence in a substantial way.

Traditionally, Qaeda with better trained, more experienced and highly committed operatives wanted to attack more difficult targets especially strategic targets and leave the easier and tactical targets to its associated groups. With Al Qaeda decentralizing, its operatives are working closely together at a tactical level with other groups. As a result, the lethality of the attacks conducted by the associate groups of Al Qaeda is increasing. As Bali in 2002 and Casablanca in 2003 demonstrated, the attacks conducted by the associate groups of Al Qaeda can be as lethal as the attacks conducted by the parent group itself. With attacks conducted by Al Qaeda's associated groups posing a threat as great as Al Qaeda, the theatre of war will widen. Government security and intelligence agencies will be forced to monitor the technologies, tactics and techniques of a wide range of groups.

Although US is under severe pressure to withdraw from Saudi Arabia, the US will prefer to remain in the Kingdom because withdrawal after the recent attack will mean defeat in the eyes of its opponents. Nonetheless, US visibility in the Middle East; US assistance to Israel; continued US presence in Iraq will generating wide ranging reactions from the Islamists, both terrorist groups and political parties. Especially after US, Allied, and Coalition intervened in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, Iraq is an attractive base for Al Qaeda. The Islamists desperately needs a new theater to produce psychologically and physically war-trained Islamists.

Successes and Failures:

Although branded a "War against Terrorism" by the US, the fight is against a radical ideology producing Muslim youth willing to kill and die and wealthy Muslims willing to support and suffer incarceration. For the Al Qaeda umbrella - the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and the Crusaders - the fight is against a civilization. The reality is that, it is a fight between the vast majority of progressive Muslims and the miniscule percentage of radical Muslims. It is not a clash of civilizations but a clash among civilizations - a fight that must essentially be fought within the Muslim world. While the immediate (1-2 years) consequences are apparent, the mid (5 years) and long term (10 years) consequence of fighting primarily an ideological campaign militarily is yet to be seen. All indications are that Islamism - whether it is in Turkey, Pakistan, Malaysia, or in Indonesia - is moving from the periphery to the centre. US intervention in Iraq has spiked the ideological fuel prolonging the strength, size and life of Islamist political parties and terrorist groups.

The greatest failure of the US-led coalition is its lack of capability to neutralize the core leadership of both Al Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of the Taliban. While preparations for protracted guerrilla operations against the coalition forces inside Afghanistan is coordinated by the Taliban leader Mullah Mohommad Omar, terrorist operations worldwide including in Afghanistan is coordinated by Osama bin Laden and his deputy, principal strategist and designated successor Dr Ayman Zawahiri. Multiple sources, including the CIA reveals that both bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are alive. Furthermore, Zawahiri refers to suicide attacks on the oldest Jewish synagogue in North Africa in Djerba, Tunisia, killing 21 including 14 German tourists on April 11, 2002 and the killing of 14 including 11 French naval technicians working on the submarine project outside Sheraton Hotel in Karachi, Pakistan, on May 9, 2002. He states "Thank God, America could not reach the leaders of Al Qaeda and Taliban, including Mullah Muhammad Omar and Shayak Osama bin Laden, who enjoy good heath and, alongside the rest of the patient mujahidin, are managing the battle against the US crusader raid on Afghanistan" Members of the former Army of the Islamic Emirate Afghanistan loyal to Mullah Omar and Al Qaeda's 055 Brigade that survived death or capture are supporting or engaged in guerrilla and terrorist operations against the US led coalition both inside and outside Afghanistan respectively. Mullah Omar is building a clandestine network slowly and steadily in Afghanistan utilizing its vast and porous borders to wage a protracted campaign of sustained urban warfare. Bin Laden and Zawahiri are developing targets overseas, especially soft targets with a twin focus on population centers and economic targets.

Change of Mindset:

To make it difficult for its enemies, Al Qaeda has constantly innovated its military tactics, financial methods, and propaganda techniques in the past year. Al Qaeda - focusing on strategic targets prior to 9-11 - is operating across the entire spectrum targeting both strategic to tactical targets. Although the West seized US$ 150 million of terrorist money in the first four months after 9-11, with the transformation of Al Qaeda financial practices only about 10 million has been seized. With the targeting of the above ground open banking system, the underground unregulated banking network (hawala) has grown bigger. With mosques, madrasas, charities and community centers that disseminate Islamist propaganda coming under threat, Al Qaeda is increasingly relying on the Internet. As Al Qaeda is a learning organization, the law enforcement and security and intelligence fighting it must be goal-oriented and not rule-oriented.

With the terrorist's adapting to the threat posed by government law enforcement authorities, government security and intelligence agencies are increasing their human and technical source penetration. Capabilities for terrorist tracking, re-emption and disruption of terrorist operations is increasing. For instance, an Al Qaeda team travelling in their vehicle in Yemen's northern Province of Marib was attacked by a hellfire missile from the CIA-controlled unmanned Predator drone on November 4, 2002. The attacked killed Ali Senyan al-Harthi alias Qaed Senyan al-Harthi alias Abu Ali, the mastermind of the USS Cole operation and a key Al Qaeda leader in the region. To meet the current threat, the Pentagon has increased its intelligence capability and the CIA has increased its paramilitary capability. In the foreseeable future, human intelligence and covert strike forces will remain at the heart of fighting secret and highly motivated organizations like Al Qaeda. It is critical for the US to increase its sharing of intelligence especially with their Middle Eastern and Asian counterparts. Traditionally, the US has been averse to sharing high-grade intelligence especially source based intelligence with the Muslim World. This has changed since 9-11 but not adequately.

If Al Qaeda is to be defeated a change in the thinking of the US led "War of Terrorism" is paramount. Despite US-led coalition campaign worldwide, the Al Qaeda alliance - the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders - has managed to repair the damage to their support and operational infrastructure. As no serious international effort has been made to counter the Islamist ideology (the belief that "very Muslims duty is to wage jihad") the robust Islamist milieu is providing recruits and financial support for Islamist groups worldwide to replenish their human losses and material wastage. Today, 2-4 Al Qaeda and Taliban members are captured or killed in Afghanistan but at the end of the week the Islamists are successful in attracting a dozen recruits as members, collaborators, supporters and sympathizers. To put it crudely, the rate of production of Islamists is greater than the rate of their kill or capture. Into the counter-terrorism toolbox, the powerful message that Al Qaeda is not Koranic but heretical has not been integrated. As such there is popular support for the Al Qaeda model of Islam among the politicized and radicalized Muslims. As there is no effort to counter or dilute the ideology of extremism, the military campaign against Al Qaeda even if pursued single-mindedly and unrelentingly is likely to take decades. The "deep reservoir of hatred and a desire for revenge" will remain unless the US can start to think beyond the counter-terrorist military and financial dimensions.

The international community must seek to build a zero tolerance level for terrorist support activity. The tragedy of 9-11, Bali, Moscow, Riyadh, Casablanca and several other attacks demonstrate that contemporary terrorists are indiscriminate. As terrorists do not recognize and respect ethnicity, religion or national borders, terrorism irrespective of location should be fought. There is no appeasement with those who seek to advance their political aims and objectives using violence. Like Indonesia, countries that condone, tolerate or fail to take tough action against terrorism will be touched by it. It is not only the countries in the South but even countries in the North have been complacent in the fight against terrorism. Within four months of 9-11 Western governments froze US$ 150 million of terrorist money in Europe and North America indicative of the magnitude of terrorist wealth in liberal democracies. Although Al Qaeda support network has suffered in the US, its propaganda, recruitment, and fundraising activities are still continuing in Europe. Despite efforts to the contrary, segments of Muslims in the migrant communities of North America, Western Europe and Australasia and territorial communities of the Middle East and Asia continue to provide support to Al Qaeda and other Islamist groups. As Europe has not suffered a large-scale attack, Europeans do not perceive Al Qaeda as a high threat. As a result, Islamist support activities are continuing in Western Europe. With the increase in threat, both governments and their publics that do not take threat information seriously are bound to suffer.

Managing the Threat:

Al Qaeda has had a head start of ten years. Until one-month after US diplomatic targets in East Africa was destroyed by Al Qaeda in August 1998, the CIA did not even know the correct name of Osama bin Laden's group. However, during the past two years the understanding of the US intelligence community of its principal enemy - Al Qaeda - has grown dramatically. The tragedy of 9-11 has empowered the Counter Terrorism Center at the CIA to develop the much-needed organization and more importantly the mindset to hunt Al Qaeda. Largely due to detainee debriefings, the West today understands the threat it faces much better than ever before. The US government, especially its security and intelligence community has learnt at a remarkable pace. There is a dramatic improvement in collection and analysis both by the CIA and the FBI. For instance, immediately before the Yemeni, Kuwaiti and Bali attack, the CIA and FBI alerted friendly counterpart agencies and the US State Department issued worldwide alerts. The West together with its Middle Eastern and Asian counterparts seriously started to fight Al Qaeda only after 9-11 and Al Qaeda has suffered gravely. The global strategy of the West to meet the global threat posed by Al Qaeda is taking shape slowly but steadily. Like it contained the Soviet threat in the second half of the 20th century, it will develop the organization and a doctrine to contain the Islamist threat. With sustained efforts to target the core and penultimate leadership, it is very likely that the Al Qaeda echelon Osama bin Laden, Dr Ayman Al Zawahiri and even the Taliban leader Mullah Omar will be captured or more likely killed. Nonetheless, Islamist terrorism will outlive Al Qaeda and Islamism as an ideology will persist in the foreseeable future.

The global fight against terrorism will be primarily spearheaded by the West and Japan - the rich and influential nations with the greatest staying power. With the diffusion of the terrorist threat, the US political, military, economic and diplomatic presence will grow and its influence will expand globally in the years ahead. It is a long fight and will have to be fought on all fronts by multiple actors across many countries. To ensure the success of the campaign, the international community must remain focused on targeting Al Qaeda and committed to rebuilding Afghanistan, Pakistan, and now Iraq. Western nations must move beyond rhetoric into concrete action, pour in resources, and built modern model nation-states for the Muslim World in these countries. Protecting Karzai of Afghanistan and Musharaff of Pakistan - the most threatened world leaders - is paramount. Several attempts by Al Qaeda and its associated groups to assassinate these leaders have been frustrated. International assistance to their regimes to politically and economically develop their countries and invest in their publics is key to reducing the space for and challenge the Islamists continuously appealing to the politically and economically marginalized.

On the eve of the US intervention in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden correctly stated that the fight has moved beyond Al Qaeda. The attacks by a dozen Islamist groups since 9-11 demonstrate the emerging trend. Al Qaeda's propaganda war since 9-11 especially after US intervention in Iraq has escalated several folds. With Al Qaeda and pro-Al Qaeda web sites proliferating - many of them operationally unconnected but ideologically connected to Al Qaeda - support for Al Qaeda's ideology is slowly growing. The world has recently witnessed several isolated terrorist incidents by those influenced by terrorist propaganda. For instance, Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, an Egyptian walked to the El Al counter at the Los Angeles International Airport and shot two people dead on America's independence day on July 4, 2002. There were arrests worldwide including in the heart of Europe of several politicized and radicalized Muslims providing funds or were planning and preparing terrorist attacks. Osman Petmezci, a 24 year old Turkish national, and his American fiancée Astrid Eyzaguirre, 23, were preparing to attack the US Army Europe Headquarters in Heidelberg arrested by the German authorities on September 5, 2002. Inside the couple's third-floor apartment, police recovered 130 kilograms of bomb making chemicals, five pipe bombs, a bomb making manual, detonators and a picture of bin Laden. German authorities believe that the "couple was acting alone, despite citing evidence that they admired Osama bin Laden and shared some of convictions, including a hatred for the Jews." There are several similar unreported or under reported terrorist attacks. For instance, a US helicopter carrying US oil company employees was attacked after taking off from the San'a airport injuring two persons on November 3, 2002. With the steadfast erosion of Al Qaeda personnel and physical infrastructure, Al Qaeda can become a state-of-mind spawning both individual terrorists and successor terrorist organizations. To avoid this real danger, the ideological response to Al Qaeda and Islamism as a doctrine must not be made a secondary task.

If to win the campaign, the fight against radical Islam should not be confused with the Muslim world, one fifth of humanity or 1.44 billion people. It is not a clash of civilization but a clash among civilization. It is a fight waged between the progressive Muslims and the radical Muslims. Only a miniscule of the Muslim public actively supports terrorism. The vast majority of Muslims have suffered as a result of political violence unleashed by a small group of power hungry leaders wearing the garb of religion. If the fight is to be won, efforts must be made to protect the moderate Muslims from virulent ideologies propagated by Mullah's of the Al Qaeda brand of Islam. With the threat of Islamism increasing, the hands of the progressive Muslim leaders both in government and outside government especially in the non-governmental organizations must be strengthened. It must involve the best of relations between the Western governmental and non-governmental leaders with their Middle Eastern and Asian counterparts and moreover public diplomacy where governments directly communicate with the public, even of publics across borders. Despite the oil boom, the failure of the Arab leaders to invest in their citizens has increased both the ideological appeal and the welfare programs of terrorist groups. The Arab regimes must take the blame for their failure to build modern education systems, create new jobs, and develop the quality of life of their people. By fashion of blaming the West for their ills and more importantly their reluctance to counter anti-Western rhetoric makes Western public diplomacy in the Arab World even more necessary. In parallel to Al Jazeera, a CNN, BBC or CBS Arab satellite television station is central to correcting and fashioning the traditional Middle Eastern view of the West. Instead of shying away, the West must engage the Middle East to develop transparency and accountability. Furthermore, joint prophylactic measures - greater investment in the political, socio-economic reform especially education and welfare - by the West, and working together with the Muslim World is likely to reduce support for terrorism in the long term.

Events since 9-11 demonstrate that the threat to the United States has clearly moved beyond Al Qaeda. Nonetheless, the Islamists are weak and if the resources are applied strategically, they can be defeated. To meet the existing and emerging challenge of Islamism and Islamist terrorist groups, the US must seek to develop and sustain a multi-pronged, multi-dimensional, multi-agency and a multinational response.

Rohan Gunaratna (PhD St Andrews MA Notre Dame FRSA UK) has 18-years of operational, policy and academic experience in counter terrorism. He is head of terrorism research, Institute for Defence and Strategic Studies, Singapore; Senior Fellow, Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, University of St Andrews, Scotland; Honorary Fellow, International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism, Israel. He has authored eight books, including "Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror" (Columbia University Press, New York, 2002), an international bestseller, and "Jane's Counter Terrorism (2003), the leading CT handbook. He has served as a consultant to the UK and US law enforcement communities.)

Current News

The Commission has released its final report. [more]

The Chair and Vice Chair have released a statement regarding the Commission's closing. [more]

The Commission closed August 21, 2004. [more]

Commission Members

Thomas H. Kean

Lee H. Hamilton
Vice Chair

Richard Ben-Veniste
Fred F. Fielding
Jamie S. Gorelick
Slade Gorton
Bob Kerrey
John F. Lehman
Timothy J. Roemer
James R. Thompson

Commission Staff

Philip D. Zelikow
Executive Director

Chris Kojm
Deputy Executive Director

Daniel Marcus
General Counsel