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Last Updated: Saturday, 12 July, 2003, 15:19 GMT 16:19 UK
Winning the war on terror

By Frank Gardner
BBC security correspondent

The row over who should try the British prisoners in Guantanamo Bay has thrown a new spotlight on the US-led war on terror.

As the second anniversary of 11 September approaches, more than 3,000 suspects are being held without trial around the world.

On 1 May, US President George Bush declared the "turning of the tide" in the war on terror.

"The war on terror is not over, yet it is not endless," he said.

Bomb damage at the blast at the al-Hamra compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 14 May 2003

Flushed with victory in Iraq, Mr Bush believed al-Qaeda was on the defensive. But even as he was giving that speech, an al-Qaeda cell was preparing to attack Americans on the other side of the world.

The Riyadh bombing on 12 May killed 35 people including nine bombers.

Al-Qaeda had gone quiet for weeks. Now, it seemed, it was back in business.

Riyadh was followed by more deadly suicide bombings in Casablanca, Morocco.

MJ Gohel, a terrorism expert with the Asia Pacific Foundation, said it was premature to declare any kind of victory in the war on terror.

"You have to look at what has happened since 11 September and the war in Afghanistan ended, when Operation Enduring Freedom ended," he said.

"Since that time we have had more attacks, in more parts of the world than ever before. These are not indicators of al-Qaeda being rolled back or the terror network being on the run".

Key arrests

So how do we judge who is winning this war? One way is to look at the terrorist attacks that have succeeded against those that have been prevented.

The bombings in Bali, and elsewhere, represent intelligence failures. But horrific as they were, they were nothing like on the scale of 11 September.

I think al-Qaeda has lost ground in the last two years
Gerard Russell, UK Foreign Office
Since that day, increased international co-operation has meant that countless potential plots have been nipped in the bud.

The plans to blow up British warships off Gibraltar, for example, were foiled due to a joint intelligence operation by at least five countries.

Another, more controversial measure of success is the number of arrests.

Ramzi Bin al-Shaibah, one of the suspected 11 September masterminds, was seized in Karachi last September. His subsequent interrogation has in turn led to more arrests, including his alleged co-conspirator, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed.

More than 3,000 suspects are now in custody around the world. Some may well be innocent. Others are yielding valuable information.

A former CIA operative, Mike Baker, now CEO of the security company, Diligence, said the interrogations were a key element in this war.

"The interrogations, that have been ongoing and will continue as we pick up more and more of these individuals, are extremely important," he said. "Interrogation is a very difficult process.

"It is by no means haphazard. You don't just walk into to a room and start randomly asking questions. It creates a great deal of work."

And, inevitably, it also causes a great deal of resentment against the West.

Western fears

Anti-western protests across the Muslim world have not toppled governments. But they do show how many Muslims deeply resent the US-led war on terror.

Prisoners are being held indefinitely, not just in Guantanamo Bay, but also in secret Arab jails where torture is routine.

The London-based Saudi dissident, Dr Saad al-Fagih, said the West was losing the battle for Arab hearts and minds.

"On the one side there is a security containment of al-Qaeda. But there is also a huge growth of al-Qaeda as a major social power, a strategic power with social support, logistic support and also with a group of theorisers and moral supporters, who may lay the ground for it to stay as a strategic challenge to the US," he said.

That is something the British Government is trying to change.

In a small corner of the Foreign Office in Whitehall, the so-called Islamic Media Unit gives interviews in Arabic to try and get its views across to the Arab world.

"I think al-Qaeda has lost ground in the last two years, and I think there are more people than before who would see Bin Laden and al-Qaeda as beyond the pale," said the unit's head, Gerard Russell.

"But I don't claim that the resentment against the West has disappeared.

"I think what we can do is to continue to empathise with those who disagree with us, that they have opportunities to influence governments of the West through democratic means, that Muslim populations in the West are enfranchised and that they also have the opportunity of having a dialogue through their own governments with our governments, without resorting to violence or terrorism."

'Threat will remain'

But the war on terror is having an effect, not just on Muslim psychology, but also on people in the West, who have been told by their governments that another major al-Qaeda attack is inevitable one day.

Bill Durodie of Kings College, London, says if people keep living in fear then the terrorists will have won.

"We should remember that... last November, the Prime Minister (Tony Blair) indicated that we should only act on the basis of specific evidence, and if we acted on general vague warnings we could end up doing the terrorists' job for them by paralysing our societies," he said.

And yet Mike Baker, the former CIA agent, takes the opposite view.

"I think we can do a better job of working with the public to help them understand that we're in a new world," he said.

"This threat of terrorism, it doesn't go away. In counter terrorism and the war on terrorism we're battling this 24-7, but I think that from a public perception standpoint we have to strive to make it clear that it really doesn't end.

"This threat exists and will continue to exist despite the many successes we have had and will continue to have."

And that is the problem. However many arrests, interrogations and intelligence breakthroughs are made, the threat of terrorism will remain, as long as certain people hate the West.

And until that threat subsides, the war on terror will never truly be over.


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