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Al Qaeda 2.0: Where will it strike next?

December 22, 2004

Michael Scheuer is a former chief of the CIA's counter-terrorism centre's bin Laden unit.

Scheuer, who resigned from the CIA in November after 22 years of service, believes there is a need to build pressure on Al Qaeda inside Afghanistan, and not in Pakistan because Islamabad is already doing a lot in the war against terrorism.

He thinks the Al Qaeda leadership is still planning new attacks in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia while hiding in Afghanistan. Many areas in southern and eastern Afghanistan, he added, are not under the Hamid Karzai administration's control.

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He also said Europe, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan seem to be Al Qaeda's new targets in the near future.

Other US security officials are confident that there are no more Al Qaeda secret cells in the country and Osama bin Laden cannot organise new attacks like 9/11 in New York or Washington. But they too warn that America's allies in the war against terrorism are still vulnerable to Al Qaeda attacks.

The United Kingdom will increase the number of its troops in Afghanistan under NATO cover early next year. The UK and Pakistan will increase pressure on the Taliban in southern Afghanistan through coordinated operations. US troops will increase the pressure on Al Qaeda in eastern Afghanistan.

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Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf recently claimed in Washington that they had broken Al Qaeda's backbone in Pakistan, but US security agencies are reluctant to believe him.

While agreeing that the Pakistan army is playing a major role in hunting for Al Qaeda activists, a source in the Pentagon said: "Osama bin Laden, Dr Ayman al Zawahri and Saif ul Adil are still at large. Nobody knows their location, they are still releasing audio and video messages, their fighters have recently targeted the US consulate in Jeddah. We can say Al Qaeda is like a wounded snake but it is not dead."

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High ranking government officials and terrorism experts in Washington agree that Al Qaeda is very active in the United Kingdom and many young British Muslims could participate in deadly attacks inside and outside Europe.

Participants at the conference on 'Al Qaeda 2.0: Transnational Terrorism After 9/11' held at the Caucus Room in the Russell Senate office building on Capitol Hill on December 2 were told there were 15 Al Qaeda associate groups in Europe and Canada today, and that these groups pose the real threat to American allies.

The conference, organised by the New America Foundation and the New York University Centre on Law and Security, had terrorism experts from the US, Europe, the Middle East and South East Asia discussing the present state of Al Qaeda.

"We are blind to the real danger facing us," said Marc Sageman, a former CIA officer who worked in Islamabad during the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

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The danger, Sageman said, was not more September 11-style attacks but a succession of Madrids, Casablancas, Istanbuls and Jeddahs, smaller but still highly deadly, coordinated attacks.

Ursula Mueller, a terrorism expert from Germany, said that there are indications that Europe is at greater risk for terrorist attacks than the US, particularly US allies with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

She said Germany, which has 2,200 troops in Afghanistan, can become an Al Qaeda target any time. She also revealed that as many as 50 German Muslims left for Iraq to fight against US troops, and they could create a lot of problems when they return.

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Rohan Gunartana, the Singapore-based terrorism expert, felt that British Muslims of Pakistani origin are the more willing recruits for Al Qaeda because there is lot of resentment in young Muslims after the US invasion of Iraq.

Lawrence Wright of the New Yorker said young Muslims are "not happy with us because we always support corrupt and non-democratic regimes in the Muslim world."

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Pakistan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia are three key American allies in the war against terrorism and that is why these three countries can become major targets for Al Qaeda in the near future, he said.

"Al Qaeda would like to punish these countries for their cooperation with us."

Al Qaeda plans to attack US hard: Ashcroft 

Peter Bergen of CNN said Kashmiri militant groups had been cooperating with Al Qaeda in the past. These groups were involved in the attacks on President Musharraf and they are still very active.

Colonel Pat Long, a former officer of the US Defence Intelligence Agency, said many elements in the Pakistani military and intelligence services are not on board with Musharraf and "that's why we are still facing problems in Afghanistan."

Long, who spent a lot of time in Pakistani tribal areas, claimed that the majority of Pashtuns in these areas support Al Qaeda.

Most of the US experts were not aware that the Pakistan army lost more than 200 soldiers in South Wazirastan while hunting for Al Qaeda activists.

I invited the US media and experts to visit areas like South Wazirastan to understand the ground realities.

I agreed with Colonel Long that there is a lot of support for Al Qaeda in Pakistan's tribal areas because these Pashtuns think the US is deliberately targeting Muslims from Afghanistan to Iraq.

Michael Scheuer supported me and said the Pakistan army suffered more casualties against Al Qaeda than the US army in Afghanistan, and the US media should not undermine the Pakistan army's efforts and sacrifices in the war against terrorism.

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He also supported my view that Al Qaeda's real strength is not religion but American policies which are not popular in the Muslim world.

Yusri Fouda of Al Jazeera told the conference that the United States should declare war on illiteracy, hunger and disease instead of terrorism.

He demanded that the US stop supporting undemocratic governments in the Muslim world.

These governments are not popular among Muslim youth, and when bin Laden criticises these corrupt governments, angry young Muslims view him as their hero, Fouda added.

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