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Page last updated at 12:00 GMT, Monday, 6 October 2008 13:00 UK

Is al-Qaeda winning the battle?

By Owen Bennett-Jones
BBC World Service

Al Qaeda training camp video
Pakistan believes al-Qaeda's presence has been massively reduced
Seven years after 9/11, the taunting continues.

"Leave us alone to establish the Islamic Shura state which will unite the Muslims of the earth in truth and justice," said a recent al-Qaeda webcast.

"A single word of American protest will be silenced by a thousand Islamic bombs."

But since that morning in 2001, al-Qaeda has not landed one blow inside the United States - and this year the head of the CIA said the group had suffered "strategic defeat."

So how strong is al-Qaeda?

'Collective losers'

Pakistani intelligence officials claim that the organisation is down to around 80 people in their country. They say al-Qaeda survives in the tribal areas only thanks to its alliance with the much more numerous Taleban.

But the problem is that recent military strikes by the Americans in Pakistan's tribal areas are unifying the different radical Islamic groups.

Marriott hotel after bombing
The bombing of Islamabad's Marriott Hotel reawakened terror concerns
"If the Taleban are given respect, if they are treated as actual partners and stakeholders in Afghanistan, I'm very sure they will play their role in containing the threat of al-Qaeda," said security analyst Zaid Hamid.

"If the West is serious about containing al-Qaeda, they must engage the Taleban... There's a split going on right now between al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taleban.

"And if the West cannot see this or cannot exploit this, or if Pakistan cannot understand this, then the world will be collective losers."

But far from talking to the Taleban, the West is fighting it. And not for the first time. When Kabul fell to the Americans following 9/11, hundreds of al-Qaeda fighters fled Afghanistan and opened a new front - in Saudi Arabia.

Al-Qaeda attacked Western housing compounds, assassinated senior police officers, and fought gun battles in cities across the Kingdom.

But the Saudi authorities prevailed.

"If we take al Qaeda as an organisation, it has been destroyed," said Abdul Rahman al-Hadlaq, from the Saudi Ministry of Interior. "...by arresting their leaders and their followers, you are basically destroying their organisation."

Formidable enemy

Being extremely rich - oil revenues are a $1bn (560m) a day - the Saudi state really does have the strength to get things done, things like wrapping up al-Qaeda.

Web page for extremist Islamic group seeking recruits
The West is worried about the use of the internet by extremists
But in nearby Jordan the story is different. There, I meet a man who would not give me his name but who said he had recruited fighters for al-Qaeda - specifically for Iraq.

"Everyone in the world knows that America has launched a crusade against Islam all over the world. Iraq is one of those spots," he said.

"It's a duty for all Muslims to support Jihad and Mujahedeen in the war against this occupation. So we go to Iraq to protect our lands... to make the Americans leave and to protect our fortune."

Despite these words, al-Qaeda has met a formidable enemy in Iraq.

At a US base just outside Baghdad you can see the scale of the American operation. Helicopters fly in and out every few minutes disgorging soldiers and picking up fresh ones.

It is an awesome display of power. And the Americans are increasingly confident - one retired General wrote recently that the al-Qaeda leaders in Iraq are "dead men walking".

"We've had offensive operations directed at where they've been, intelligence tells us where they might go," said US Colonel Gerry O'Hara.

"So not only do we have operations that are on top of them, we have operations planned on the escape routes that they would use to set up in another location," he said.

"We're not going to let up on them. We're taking every bit of safe haven away from them."

New attack?

Al-Qaeda's problems were compounded by the American surge of 2007. The US not only sent more troops to Iraq but also starting paying Sunni tribal leaders to oppose al-Qaeda. It was called the Sunni awakening.

Bin Laden had called on fighters to force America into "protracted, exhausting close combat," particularly in cities.

However Nabil Haj, an advisor to the American military in Iraq, said that the strategy failed.

"We pushed al-Qaeda out from the urban areas like Ramadi, Falluja, Baquba, central Baghdad. They were pushed out to the rural areas," he said.

"So they are really fading, fading out."

But while al-Qaeda's campaigns in Iraq and Saudi are not going well, it is still winning recruits.

Algerian jihadists have sworn allegiance to al-Qaeda, and Western officials are concerned about developments in Morocco, Tunisia and Somalia too.

And the West never knows if there is going to be another major attack - perhaps with weapons of mass destruction.

The head of the CIA, General Michael Hayden, has warned of a new generation of recruits brought up in the West. That worries EU officials too.

"Pakistan is so important - both as a place where people can get training, and where an al-Qaeda corps can hide itself," said Gilles de Kerchove, the EU's counter-terrorism coordinator.

"On the other hand, you have this new development where you have this home-grown terrorism, where people get this information just on the internet and do not train," he said.

"That to a certain extent is good news, because it leads to a less sophisticated attack."

Nevertheless, with one attack al-Qaeda could transform the current situation.

As things stand, the organisation is down but by no means out.

Click here to listen to Owen Bennett-Jones' documentary series Is Al-Qaeda Winning? on the BBC World Service



SEE ALSO
'Managing' the Afghan insurgency
05 Oct 08 |  South Asia
US kills 'senior Baghdad bomber'
04 Oct 08 |  Middle East
'US strike' hits Pakistan village
03 Oct 08 |  South Asia
Al-Qaeda funding verdict reversed
03 Oct 08 |  Americas

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