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Al Qaeda shifting focus from Iraq to Afghanistan

October 26, 2006 17:33 IST

Muslim extremists are turning their attention from Iraq back to the symbolically important and increasingly violent turf of Afghanistan, the Los Angeles Times has reported, quoting European and US anti-terrorism officials.

'The shift of militants to Afghanistan this year suggests that Al Qaeda and its allies, armed with new tactics honed in Iraq, are coming full circle five years after US-led forces ousted the Taliban mullahs,' says the article.

Before September 11, 2001, Afghanistan was the land of the Jihad, where Muslim guerrillas -- armed and funded by the Americans -- first helped oust the Soviet Union in the 1980s and then joined the Pakistan-backed Taliban in the 1990s, it says.

But the US invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 'scattered the networks and sent [Osama] bin Laden fleeing toward the Pakistani border region, where many anti-terrorism officials believe he remains.'

Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, 'Muslim extremists from the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa and Europe flocked to confront the US-led coalition which ruled the country. Although foreigners have been a minority in the Iraqi insurgency, militants such as Jordanian-born Abu Musab Zarqawi played a major role in suicide attacks and kidnap-killings,' it said.

However, quoting anti-terrorism officials, the Los Angeles Times report said 'insurgent leaders in Iraq are now mainly interested in foreign recruits ready to die in suicide attacks. Moreover, the conflict is dominated by violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

In contrast, an accelerating Afghan offensive by the resurgent Taliban offers a clearer battleground and a wealth of targets: US and other North Atlantic Treaty Organisation troops, and the Western-backed government.'

Thus, as Iraqis have solidified control of their insurgency, the movement of foreign fighters to Iraq has 'significantly declined in recent months,' it quoted Pierre de Bousquet de Florian, director of the DST, France's leading counter-terrorism agency, as saying.

'There is less need for them in Iraq, because there's a need above all for kamikazes and there are not an infinite number of volunteers,' Bousquet said. 'The Iraqi insurgency is now very well organised around Iraqis... Those who want to fight, but not necessarily to die as martyrs, go elsewhere.'

Anti-terrorism agents have now detected a new flow of militants heading to Afghanistan, where more than 1,000 French soldiers are among the approximately 40,000 foreign troops deployed, he said. Iraq attracted many Arabs, including Saudis, Yemenis and Syrians, Bousquet was quoted as saying. Algerians, Tunisians and other North Africans made up the second-largest group. About 100 fighters from Europe have gone to Iraq over a three-year period, he said.

"Today they return to the route of Afghanistan, or the tribal zones of Pakistan, where clearly they are thriving. Certainly there are some Europeans, but very few. In contrast, in Afghanistan there are certainly many Pakistanis and people from Arab countries and some from North Africa.'

The surge in violence in Afghanistan this year has seen tactics such as suicide and roadside bombings, which are trademarks of the insurgency in Iraq, says the report, quoting Bousquet and other officials.

The number of suicide bombings, hitherto rare in Afghanistan, has shot up from six in 2004 to at least 78 so far this year, it notes.

'Clearly, methods have been transposed in Afghanistan that did not exist during previous wars in Afghanistan,' Bousquet said. 'Like suicide attacks. And that's directly influenced by what's happening in the Middle East, in Iraq.'

'Muslim extremists from North Africa make the odyssey to Afghanistan through routes that converge in Pakistan,' the report quoted another senior French anti-terrorism official as saying. 'There's a new route along which [North Africans] pass through Peshawar and down into Afghanistan to carry out operations. And what's new is the suicide operations. That's not at all part of the Afghan mentality,' he told.

'There's a definite increase in foreign fighters going to Afghanistan from all over,' the article quoted a US anti-terrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, as saying. 'They go through Pakistan. Or they train in Iraq and then keep going to Afghanistan.'

'Afghan officials allege that key training centers for the Taliban are in Quetta, Peshawar and Miram Shah, and that militants use mountain routes to cross the border, the report said. 'There are foreign fighters from several countries who have sanctuary and training in our neighboring country,' it quoted Gen. Zahir Azemi, chief spokesman for the Afghan army, as saying in an obvious reference to Pakistan.

Pakistani officials deny such allegations as 'absurd.'

Meanwhile, Afghanistan's historical allure for Islamic militants, the lawlessness of the Pakistani border region and the aggressiveness of the Taliban make for an ominous combination, anti-terrorism officials said.

'Besides fighting in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda and its allies could once again use training venues and combat zones in the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands to groom terrorists for attacks in the West, Caprioli said. The suicide bombers who struck the London transport system last year and other British suspects in foiled terrorist plots traveled to Pakistan for training, expertise and direction, anti-terrorism officials say,' the article says.

'Right now [extremists] go to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban,' the article quoted Louis Caprioli, who retired as chief of the French DST's anti-terrorism division in 2004, as saying.

'But the concern is that we could return to a situation like the one that existed before 2001, when they went for training and then came back. We have not reached that point yet. But people are beginning to get worried.'

More reports from Afghanistan