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Last Updated: Friday, 7 March, 2003, 22:22 GMT
From war to terror attacks?

By Frank Gardner
BBC security correspondent

Osama Bin Laden
Bin Laden is no ally of Saddam Hussein

In the minds of many in Washington, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden are two sides of the same coin.

The US administration believes both represent a threat to the US, so confronting both comes under the general heading of "The War on Terror".

If only life were so simple.

Much as America has tried to link the two, there are in fact, two separate issues here.

The global, sometimes suicidal, Islamist doctrine of al-Qaeda represents an immediate threat, not just to the US, but to the West wherever its interests lie.

Saddam Hussein's weapons may or may not be a threat to the West in the future, if, that is, he is allowed to develop them and if he gives them to transnational terror groups such as al-Qaeda.

Al-Qaeda's Iraq warning

The view of most Western intelligence agencies is that, while that could happen down the line, they have yet to see any convincing evidence of an institutional link between the Iraqi leader's regime and al-Qaeda.

Sheikh Mohammed seen after his capture
Sheikh Mohammed's capture dealt a blow to al-Qaeda

So where does al-Qaeda stand on Iraq?

Al-Qaeda has warned the West not to attack Iraq.

Not because it has any love for President Saddam Hussein - it does not - but because Iraq is a Muslim country and in any conflict there, Muslims are likely to bear the brunt of the casualties.

Al-Qaeda had already railed against the Western-backed United Nations sanctions on Iraq, accusing Washington of killing "millions of our children" by depriving them of food and medicines.

'No life-long ally'

The warning was contained in a lengthy message attributed to Osama Bin Laden and broadcast in February.

It was quickly seized upon by US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as proof of the long-sought link between Saddam Hussein and Bin Laden.

But in fact Bin Laden's message includes the sentence: "It doesn't matter if the regime in Baghdad survives or falls".

These are hardly the words of a life-long ally.

Instead, the message focuses on rallying wider Muslim support for the defence of Iraq against "infidel invaders", an appeal that has largely been ignored by the wider Middle East.

Assessing the risks

So what are the risks of terrorist attacks on the West, when and if, war in Iraq begins?

Many analysts doubt [Saddam Hussein] has the capacity to mount such an attack on a distant target from Baghdad

There are essentially three categories of risk here.

Firstly, there are fears of a big, spectacular attack launched by al-Qaeda.

Some of the group's supporters believe the plans for this were laid long ago and are only waiting for the Iraq conflict to start before activating them.

If so, then the plans may have been disrupted by the arrest in Pakistan on 1 March of al-Qaeda's Number Three, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Change in tactics?

Secondly, there is the possibility of an indirect attack by Iraq, sponsored by Saddam Hussein using a proxy group in the West.

Students in Paris protest against a possible war with Iraq
Millions of people oppose a war with Iraq

America's Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) conducted a study in February and concluded this was highly likely.

But this would constitute a complete change of strategy by the Iraqi leader.

Throughout 12 years of sanctions and aggressive air patrols by the West he never attempted such an operation.

Nor did he do so in 1991, when under direct attack during the Gulf War.

Admittedly, this time his survival is at stake so he has less to lose.

But many analysts doubt he has the capacity to mount such an attack on a distant target from Baghdad.

Finally, there is the possibility of low-scale opportunistic attacks by angry individuals or small, unaffiliated groups.

These are considered highly likely.

Millions of people all over the world oppose a US-led attack on Iraq.

Some - and they may not necessarily be Muslims - may be so incensed if and when it happens that they express their anger with violence.

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