Magnus Ranstorp (Aftonbladet)
An overview from Knight Ridder:
ROME – A series of recent developments in the war on terrorism, barely noticed in the United States, suggests that global Islamic extremism is spreading.
On Monday, Turkish authorities charged nine people, believed to be part of an al-Qaeda-linked group, in connection with planning to bomb next month’s NATO summit in Istanbul, which President Bush is scheduled to attend. That followed the April 26 televised confessions of suspects allegedly caught trying to build a chemical bomb, which authorities said could have killed tens of thousands in Jordan’s capital, Amman.
In Saudi Arabia, authorities weren’t so successful. On May 1, militants shot dead two Americans, two Britons and an Australian at an oil company’s offices. On May 3, a car bomb exploded in southwestern Pakistan, killing three Chinese engineers who had been building a multimillion-dollar seaport.
In Syria on April 27, a gym teacher died in a cross fire between extremists and police. In Thailand the next day, police killed 108 Muslim militants who had allegedly attacked police stations trying to seize guns, though that incident has overtones of longstanding ethnic strife. In Spain, an indictment issued April 29 alleges that one of the Moroccans accused in connection with the Madrid train bombings is also linked to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In Indonesia on April 30, protesters rioted after a radical cleric was arrested again on charges linking him to the 2002 nightclub bombings in Bali, which killed 202 people.
On Thursday, the FBI took into custody Oregon lawyer Brandan Mayfield, in connection with the Madrid train bombings, which killed 191 people and injured 2,000.
Many of these events, all within the past two weeks, received scant attention in the United States, where the Iraq prisoner abuse scandal has dominated news headlines. But they are the most recent indications that the threat of Islamic terrorism — and the transnational battles against it — are intensifying.
The recent episodes show that law enforcement and intelligence agencies across Europe and the Middle East have been able to prevent terrorist attacks and have vigorously pursued those accused of planning them. Yet the military and police actions haven’t stopped extremists from hatching chilling plots.
Islamic militants “are trying to expand the battlefield and exhaust the United States, creating widespread fear,” said Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism specialist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. …
U.S. officials say that more than two-thirds of al-Qaeda’s leaders have been killed or captured, and as many as 4,000 people have been arrested on terrorism-related charges worldwide.
But some experts believe the war on terrorism — and the U.S.-led war in Iraq — have inspired recruits who are operating in loosely affiliated, independent cells.
“The U.S. invasion of Iraq increased the worldwide threat of terrorism many times over,” said Rohan Gunaratna, author of the book “Inside al-Qaeda, the Global Network of Terror.”
Richard Evans, a terrorism expert and editor of Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center in London said, “These days, al-Qaeda really is just a merchant banker of global Islamic militancy.
“The modern face of global Islamic militancy is very disjointed and extremely diffuse. There are all kinds of different groups and different networks operating around the world now.”
In Turkey, where four suicide truck bombings killed 63 people in November, officials said they’d been watching and listening to the NATO summit plotters for up to a year. When they finally moved in, they said, they seized handguns, rifles, explosives, timers, mobile telephones, bomb-making pamphlets and compact discs containing instructions from Osama bin Laden.
They said the suspects were members of Ansar al-Islam, a radical group that operates in northern Iraq.
Turkish newspapers reported Tuesday that authorities believed three of the suspects intended to carry out suicide attacks against Bush at the June summit. One of the men had lived in Pakistan for six years, where he received flight training, a newspaper said.
Details are still sketchy about the plot in Amman. On April 26, Jordanian authorities broadcast taped confessions from suspects who said they planned to set off a chemical bomb — what kind of chemical wasn’t disclosed — near Jordanian intelligence headquarters in Amman. Authorities said the attack could have killed as many as 80,000 people.
A statement attributed to Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who U.S. officials believe is responsible for several suicide attacks against civilians in Iraq, later confirmed the bomb plot but denied that chemicals would have been used.
The plot also called for attacks on the prime minister’s office and the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordanian officials said on state television. Six suspects were arrested and four others were killed in a series of recent raids, security officials said.
The Amman and Istanbul operations came after a series of other arrests in Europe since the Madrid rail car bombings. On April 6, U.S. and British agents reportedly uncovered a possible plot to use the lethal chemical osmium tetroxide to kill people in the United Kingdom.
Europe may face an even larger indigenous terror threat than the United States because it is home to larger numbers of Islamic extremists and closer to North Africa and the Middle East.
Extremists also have targeted certain Islamic countries allied with the United States, particularly Saudi Arabia, which faces a homegrown threat, and Turkey, which is seen as a crucial battleground.
European and Middle Eastern intelligence agencies’ counterterrorism efforts “have been very successful, relatively speaking. We know what they think about, we know how they operate,” said Ranstorp, the terrorism expert. “But of course… you can’t watch all individuals all the time.”
Evans said: “In Western Europe, another successful terrorist attack is a case of ‘when,’ not ‘if.’ “