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Sunday, 23 December, 2001, 10:30 GMT
Analysis: Al-Qaeda threat lives on
Captured al-Qaeda fighters at the Tora Bora cave complex in Afghanistan
Capturing fighters 'does not smash the terror networks'

With the capture of the Tora Bora cave complex, the United States has achieved a major aim in its campaign against the al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan.

But security experts warn that the loss of al-Qaeda's base will not shut down the network accused of carrying out the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington.

Osama Bin Laden
Al-Qaeda 'can survive without Bin Laden'
For one thing, few of the al-Qaeda leaders have been apprehended or killed.

"The leadership is still at large. Only six or seven of the 30 senior leaders have been eliminated," says Dr Magnus Ranstorp, deputy director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St Andrews University in Scotland.

Analysts warn further that - even if the al-Qaeda leadership is somehow smashed - militant cells in the field can operate without leadership from the top.

They point out that modern terrorism tends to be networked, with self-motivating groups.

Only the leaders - not the operatives - of the al-Qaeda network were in Afghanistan.

Localised cells have the ability to launch operations without the leadership

Dr Magnus Ranstorp
By flushing them out of Afghanistan, Washington has tackled two levels of the network, according to Dr Mustafa Alani,an expert in Islamic extremism at Britain's Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

"The leadership and the military forces were there, but the terrorist network was not based in Afghanistan," he said.

Dr Ranstorp agreed.

"Cells exist in many countries around the world," he said - and those cells can operate without instructions from a central commander.

"Localised cells have the ability to launch operations without the leadership," he pointed out.

Mohammed Atta, suspected ringleader of the 11 September hijackers
Atta did not need orders from above
The operatives who carried out the 11 September attacks, allegedly under the leadership of Mohammed Atta, were such a group.

And analysts believe there could be many more Attas, still on the loose in North America and Europe.

Dr Alani said he doubted that al-Qaeda could carry off another attack on the scale of 11 September in the immediate future.

"There is a possibility of a wave of small attacks in the name of Bin Laden - perhaps from people with no connection to Bin Laden - but not as large as 11 September," he said.

He said there are two theories about al-Qaeda's capabilities - either that everything they had went into the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, or that if they were able to carry off such an ambitious plan, they can probably do it again.

He said he favours the latter analysis.

Dr Ranstorp does too.

It would be a misnomer to think that the US can win the war on terrorism

Magnus Ranstorp
He said there were 4,000 to 5,000 people worldwide who had been through highly specialised terrorist training provided by al-Qaeda, and "at least 20,000 to 30,000 individuals able to impart some training, advice and experience to a new generation" of militants.

"It is a mammoth task to unearth all these networks," he said.

Dr Alani said the loss of the Tora Bora complex could set al-Qaeda back somewhat.

And, he said, the US and its allies might "get lucky" in the caves by discovering documents such as lists of operatives or by catching a senior leader who could name names.

But he said such a find was unlikely because al-Qaeda had time to destroy evidence.

There is also agreement that al-Qaeda leaders could regroup in another location.

Vendor in Lahore displays a poster of Osama Bin Laden
There is some sympathy for al-Qaeda in Pakistan
One suggestion is that they might have transferred resources to Somalia - an Islamist state where Osama Bin Laden had good contacts.

Dr Ranstorp said another possibility was that sympathetic elements in Pakistan's military and intelligence services might offer al-Qaeda a sanctuary in Pakistan or Kashmir.

"It would be a misnomer to think that the US can win the war on terrorism," he said.

"This is going to take many years - in fact, it's just beginning."

See also:

14 Dec 01 | South Asia
Marines take Kandahar airport
15 Dec 01 | South Asia
UK team lobbies for Afghan force
20 Sep 01 | Americas
Profile: Donald Rumsfeld
16 Dec 01 | South Asia
Bin Laden's voice 'heard in Tora Bora'
16 Dec 01 | South Asia
Afghans told of US war aims
17 Dec 01 | South Asia
US raises flag in Kabul
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