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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 September, 2003, 15:27 GMT 16:27 UK
Is US winning its war on terror?
Frank Gardner
By Frank Gardner
BBC security correspondent

Much has happened in the past 12 months. Some of al-Qaeda's leading lights have been caught and interrogated. Saddam Hussein is no longer in power in Baghdad. Numerous plots and attacks have been thwarted. And yet, depressingly, the so-called war on terror is still with us.

There will be no flinching in this war on terror, and there will be no retreat
President Bush, 23 August 2003
The suicide bombings have not stopped, nor has the stream of anti-western invective from websites and audio broadcasts from those sympathetic to al-Qaeda. So who is winning and who is losing the war?

If we were to look at this purely in terms of military gains the answer would be obvious. The US has swiftly toppled two governments it considered to be rogue regimes - first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq. The Pentagon's supremacy on the battlefield is unrivalled and unstoppable. Its troops are holding down a sort of peace in both countries.

But waging a war on terror is a complex business. In fact many in Britain are convinced that the regime of Saddam Hussein, brutal as it was, had little to do with terrorism per se.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed: One of al-Qaeda's leading lights in custody
The most dangerous enemy for the US in particular, and for the West and its allies in general, remains the secretive terror networks inspired by - but not necessarily linked to - al-Qaeda. So what progress is being made by those trying to stop them?

Since it was President Bush who declared the war on terror two years ago, let us look at the gains and losses from the perspective of his administration.

The gains

Key arrests

There have, unquestionably, been some major arrests in recent months. Last year the FBI seized al-Qaeda operations chief Abu Zubaydah in Pakistan.

Hambali: Believed to be a link between al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah
Although at first he was able to mislead his captors with false trails, his interrogation has eventually helped the US catch more members of the network.

In September 2002 Pakistani police seized the self-confessed 11 September plotter Ramzi Binalshibh in Karachi. Six months later they caught Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, arguably the most important operational member of the network now in custody.

In August Thai police working with the CIA captured Riduan Isamuddin - also known as Hambali - believed to be the key link between al-Qaeda and its south-east Asian affiliate, Jemaah Islamiah.

There have also been a number of important arrests in Saudi Arabia, while Iran is believed to be holding Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, once the main spokesman for Al-Qaeda who used to appear in videos sitting beside Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan.

On 24 July, 2003, US Vice-President Dick Cheney gave this upbeat assessment: "One by one, in every corner of the world, we will hunt the terrorists down and destroy them."

But while these arrests have all dealt blows to al-Qaeda and its affiliates, other recruits will be quick to replace them and in time they will develop similar skills.


The most spectacular death of any al-Qaeda member since 11 September was the targeted assassination in Yemen in November 2002 of Qaed Senyan al-Harthi.

Aftermath of Riyadh bombing
Since Riyadh attacks, Saudi Arabia has gone to great lengths to tackle terror
With permission from the Yemeni authorities, the CIA launched an unmanned Predator drone aircraft from Djibouti, identified a car carrying the suspect and five others, then fired a Hellfire missile at it, killing all the occupants.

Al-Harthi had been on the run for years and was believed to be planning attacks on western interests in the region, possibly shipping. But the way he was killed was so controversial that the CIA have not repeated it outside Afghanistan.

In Saudi Arabia the security forces have been fighting gun battles on an almost weekly basis with well-armed Islamist militants. In one such battle in July they cornered a cell leader called Turki Nasser al-Dandani in a remote mosque in the north.

To the dismay of local villagers, the police poured machine-gun fire into the mosque and he died along with other fugitives.

But the Saudi authorities also bungled an attempt to capture alive one of the most wanted al-Qaeda suspects. Mohammed al-Ayeeri was killed in a gun battle north of Riyadh in May.

At a stroke, the Saudis - and the CIA - lost the chance to interrogate the man believed to be the mastermind behind one of al-Qaeda's websites. The contacts he held in his head would undoubtedly have led to many arrests.

International co-operation

After 11 September most countries were quick to sign up in principle to President Bush's war on terror. But in practice, for many of them the co-operation was half-hearted until they themselves were hit.

Funeral procession after Bali bombing
More than 200 people died in the Bali nightclub bombing
Since the Bali bombing of October 2002 Indonesia has opened up its resources to the FBI and Australian investigators, pursuing a more pro-active and often unpopular stance towards extremists.

Similarly, it took the Riyadh bombings of 12 May 2003 for the Saudis to finally take seriously the security problem they had on their hands. Since then they have gone to great lengths to try to wrap up the terror networks that have secretly flourished in their midst.

The Saudis have also begun trying to tackle the problem at grassroots level, removing hundreds of anti-western imams from their mosques and sending them to Riyadh for retraining - i.e. instruction in how not to incite attacks on westerners.

There is, however, a flip side to this co-operation. Since US policies in the Middle East are deeply unpopular with many Arabs, any government seen cracking down on Islamist militants at Washington's behest risks upsetting the wider population.

In Saudi Arabia, where most people strongly condemn the Riyadh bombings, there is also a backlash of resentment at all the extra security measures such as impromptu checkpoints.

Increased preparedness

In Britain and America there is no such backlash. Both governments have warned that a major attempted attack by al-Qaeda-linked terrorists is inevitable; they have been preparing accordingly and few are complaining.

Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri in tape broadcast on al-Jazeera, 5 October 2001
Videos featuring Bin Laden and his deputy came thick and fast in 2001
In the US the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has given $100m to state and local governments to update their emergency hazard contingency plans.

Exercises have been held across the US, training people how to deal with deliberate releases of pneumonic plague, radiological and other biological weapons.

In Britain the placing of concrete crash barriers around the Palaces of Westminister is only the tip of the counter-terrorist iceberg. Millions of pounds have been earmarked for mass decontamination and monitoring equipment.

Extra funding has been given to the Metropolitan Police's counter-terrorism unit and hundreds of mobile decontamination units have been ordered.

In terms of intelligence gathering the most significant development in Britain has been the establishment in London of JTAC, the Joint Terrorism Assessment Centre.

Employing dozens of specialists from several agencies, this secretive unit continually monitors the threat from terrorism to Britain's interests. Its recent assessment of the security risk in Saudi Arabia resulted in the suspension of British Airways flights to both Riyadh and Jeddah.

Silencing al-Qaeda

Although this will never be 100% effective, it is now far harder for al-Qaeda's remnant leadership to communicate effectively with the rest of the world.

Back in 2001 the videotapes came thick and fast, featuring Osama Bin Laden, his number two Ayman al-Zawahri, and others, all calmly putting their views forward to a rapt audience on satellite TV.

No longer. The messages that leak out from al-Qaeda and its affiliates these days tend to be audio broadcasts on the internet or faxed messages sent to news networks. It is often hard to establish their authenticity.

Wannabe groups have sprung up, sometimes trying to take the credit for operations they did not carry out.

The losses

More attacks

Paradise Hotel after terror attack in November 2002
The attack on a Kenya hotel was one of a string of bombings
The attacks have not stopped. In October 2002 the Bali bomb killed 202 people. Then came the attack on the hotel near Mombasa in November 2002. Then a lull, then the triple bombings in Riyadh in May 2003, killing more than 30 people.

Then there was Casablanca, Jakarta and a whole string of major bombings in Iraq that may or may not be connected to Islamist suicide bombers sympathetic to al-Qaeda.

US intelligence analysts are convinced that the US remains the prime target and that Bin Laden's supporters have not given up their quest to carry out a truly devastating and humiliating attack on either the US or Britain.


Before the Afghan campaign of 2001, al-Qaeda was relatively easy to find. It had a logistical and command headquarters in Afghanistan.

Now that it has been scattered across the world it has been likened to a hornet's nest hit with a stick. The hornets are everywhere and harder to catch.

Soldier at Heathrow after security alert
Full-scale alert at Heathrow airport in February 2003
In order to survive, al-Qaeda has successfully mutated. It is no longer a structured organisation with different divisions for financing, recruitment and operations.

Instead it has transferred its ideology and some of its expertise and finance to splinter groups such as Jemaah Islamiah in Asia, Jihadi militants in East Africa and certain North African cells in Europe.

Often these cells know nothing about each other. They are able to tap into an extensive underworld using false passports, visas and counterfeit money. In the case of North African operatives in Europe they have sometimes been able to move easily between countries, evading the attention of the authorities.

New methods

The most alarming new development is the threat from surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). A failed attempt was made in June 2002 to use them in Saudi Arabia to bring down a US military aircraft.

Police outside north London flat where ricin was found
Ricin was discovered at a London address in January 2003
Al-Qaeda operatives tried again in Kenya in November 2002 and narrowly missed shooting down an Israeli airliner with over 200 passengers on board.

In February 2003 there was a full-scale alert at London's Heathrow Airport following a warning passed to the intelligence services that terrorists were looking to shoot down an airliner as it came in to land.

There have also been a number of SAM attacks on aircraft in Chechnya and Iraq.

The threat of a chemical/biological attack on a western civilian population was brought closer in January 2003 with the discovery of the lethal toxin ricin at a north London flat.

While in this case nobody has been convicted, it is known that al-Qaeda conducted experiments in Afghanistan using poisonous chemicals, practising on live animals.

Amongst other new methods of operation being employed by al-Qaeda supporters is the recruitment of new converts from non-Arab ethnic groups for future operations. This is something which is deeply troubling the FBI and other investigators.

Hearts and minds

The importance of this clichéd expression cannot be underestimated. Victories on the battlefield or in the interrogation rooms are meaningless if terror networks can continue to recruit from a large wellspring of discontented youth.

And that is exactly what is happening. The wave of horror and sympathy for the victims that spread across much of the Arab and Muslim world after 11 September has long ago changed to something else.

There is now a growing conviction that the Bush administration has acquired a taste for regime change and will not stop at Baghdad
America is seen as having capitalised on those attacks by trying to "conquer" Muslim countries - Afghanistan and Iraq. The war on Saddam was seen by many as an unwarranted attack on a largely defenceless civilian population, already emaciated by 12 years of UN sanctions.

Washington's military and diplomatic support for Israel - still the bête noire for most Arabs - is undiminished.

Unfairly, many young Arabs blame their unemployment and lack of a political voice on a "US-Zionist" conspiracy aimed at somehow suppressing Muslims.

But there is also now a growing conviction that the Bush administration has acquired a taste for regime change and will not stop at Baghdad. Threats to Syria and Iran to change their policies only confirm that view.

Against this backdrop it is hardly surprising that the US - and its close ally Britain - are losing the battle for Arab and Muslim hearts and minds.

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