Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Al-Qaeda's Proliferating Ideology

Drafted By:Erich Marquardt

The July 7, 2005 attacks in London served as reminders that there is no end in sight to the current campaign by Islamists against the United States and its allies. The attacks were committed by British citizens, some of whom were raised in the country. This fact is important since it displays how segments of the British Muslim population became so alienated by British foreign policy that they contributed to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's movement against the United States and its allies.

Furthermore, the strikes came after similar attacks in Madrid, where on May 11, 2004, 191 people were killed and more than 600 wounded when ten bombs were detonated on the city's train line. Spain has held many suspects in these attacks; some are Moroccan, others Tunisian, but all are Muslim.

If attacks such as these continue, it will mark al-Qaeda's success at listing an accurate set of grievances against the West that many Muslims share. By exploiting those who agree with this set of grievances, al-Qaeda is bound to organize, and, more importantly, inspire segments of the Muslim population to take violent action against the U.S. and its allies. [See: The Threat of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Revolutionary Movement]

Implications of the London Attacks

The July 7 attacks in London were coordinated effectively, with multiple militants exploding four bombs within an hour's time frame. Three of the bombs struck underground trains, while the last bomb destroyed one of London's trademark double-decker busses. The attacks occurred in downtown London and sent a message to many governments that similar style incidents could occur anywhere. The attacks left some 50 dead and hundreds injured. Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, an Islamist group that was formed in 2001, claimed responsibility for the actions. [See: "Intelligence Brief: Islamist Terrorism in Europe"]

Two weeks after the July 7 attacks, Muslim militants targeted London's transportation system again -- the Brigades also claimed responsibility for these attacks. Where the July 7 militants succeeded, the July 21 militants failed. The July 21 attacks targeted the London transportation system yet none of the bombs detonated properly and there were no serious casualties. Indeed, one of the suspects, Hussain Osman -- also known as Hamdi Issac -- argues that the July 21 attacks were merely "copycat" attacks intended to foment fear and panic, but not to actually kill anyone.

London investigators have also not been able to uncover any connection between the July 7 attackers -- who are believed to have died in the attacks -- and the July 21 attackers. The July 7 attackers, for instance, were of Pakistani descent, while the July 21 attackers were African. Investigators have not ruled out a connection yet. More importantly, investigators believe that the two groups of militants had no organizational relationship with al-Qaeda. This development, if it is true, further highlights how bin Laden's rhetoric has emboldened Muslims across the world who agree with his argument of the need for a "defensive jihad" against the U.S. and its allies. [See: "The Threat of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Revolutionary Movement"]

If there were no organizational ties to al-Qaeda, the London attacks signify the difficulties in preventing such acts in the future since there is no one group to infiltrate and eliminate. For instance, while the latest attacks were claimed by the Brigades, it is not clear whether the organization had any real role in the operations.

Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades

The Brigades were formed in 2001 after the death of al-Qaeda leader Abu Hafs al-Masri -- known as Muhammad Atef -- in Afghanistan; the organization's title also bears his name. Their first attributed attack occurred on March 9, 2004, when two suicide bombers detonated themselves in Istanbul, killing one person and injuring five others. Then, on May 11, 2004, the group claimed responsibility for the terror attack on Madrid's transportation system, where 191 people were killed and more than 600 wounded when ten bombs were detonated on the train line. The Brigades claimed that the strike was in response to Spain's military support of the U.S.-led occupation in Iraq.

However, it is not clear how involved the Brigades were in all of these incidents; indeed, many of its claims have been proven false. For instance, the organization claimed responsibility for the August 5, 2004 bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, in addition to the power blackout in August 2003 that affected the northeast United States; both claims turned out to be false. Because of these inconsistencies, it is possible that a figure within the organization lays claim to attacks in which the group had no role, simply to promote the notion that the organization is an organized and lethal force.

The veracity of the Brigades' claims are important, considering that after the London attacks the organization released a statement giving Italy, Denmark and the Netherlands an August 15 deadline to withdraw troops from Iraq. Failure to meet the deadline, the organization argued, would result in assaults on these countries by Islamist militants. This deadline has concerned Italy greatly, since the country fears that its support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq has made it a high target for Islamists.

Concern in Italy

Italians fear that members of their own Muslim population could follow al-Qaeda's ideology and launch an attack on Italian soil. On July 12, for instance, the Italian military intelligence agency S.I.S.M.I. released an alarming report where it stated that some 300 Islamist suicide fighters successfully reached Iraq from other countries -- three of them were proven to have come from Italy. This knowledge is concerning and embarrassing for the Italian government, as it sheds doubt on Rome's ability to combat internal militants since it cannot even prevent them from leaving Italy to fight in Iraq.

However, even if the Brigades does not have the operational capacity that it proclaims, Italy's support of the U.S. still makes it a target for other Islamist militants, and the government is aware of this. The success of the July 7 London attacks, and even the fear caused by the failed July 21 attacks, prodded Rome to action, and in recent days it has taken serious measures against potential Islamists within its borders.

On August 15, Italian police announced that more than 100 suspected Islamists had been arrested, and that Rome would expel hundreds more; the action is part of Italy's anti-terror sweep that is now possible due to legislation passed after the London attacks giving the Italian police more power. According to the Italian Interior Ministry, police targeted "Islamic gathering places: call centers, Internet points, Islamic butcher shops and money transfer businesses."

The ministry also stated that it ordered more than 700 people to leave Italy for violating immigration laws. Also on August 15, the ministry stated that its current intelligence can "confirm that an elevated risk for a terrorist attack in our country remains." As the September 11, 2001 anniversary draws near, the Italian government is being extra vigilant in case militants are planning to launch an attack on that day in order to tie special significance to their actions.

Denmark and the Netherlands

Denmark is also a country on the Brigades' hit list. Some 500 Danish troops are in Iraq fighting alongside U.S.-led forces. Islam is now the second largest religion in Denmark, making up about five percent of the population.

In recent weeks, Danish police have been very visible in the country's capital, Copenhagen, and have been especially vigilant in protecting the city's public transportation system.

While it has not responded with the same vigor as Rome, Copenhagen has taken action against some Muslim extremist groups. Just recently, for instance, Fadi Abdullatif, spokesman for the Danish wing of Hizb ut-Tahrir -- a radical Islamist group -- was arrested due to his threats against the Danish government. Such rhetoric was seen in a Hizb ut-Tahrir handout, distributed in Denmark, that said, "So, travel to help your brothers in Fallujah and exterminate your rulers if they block your way."

The Netherlands was also threatened with the August 15 deadline. However, the Netherlands withdrew its troops even before the threat was levied. Nevertheless, the country feels that it could be next in an attack, especially since it has large Moroccan and Turkish communities that have not been completely integrated with Dutch society.


It is difficult to draw conclusions regarding the Islamic revolutionary movement. A logical assessment is that U.S. military operations against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan scattered an already relatively primitive organization. Continued U.S. vigilance in that country and elsewhere will make it difficult for al-Qaeda to orchestrate any large-scale attacks against the United States, or even its major European allies.

Yet, because of al-Qaeda's attractive ideology, similar attacks such as those that occurred in London and Madrid, in addition to those that have been executed in other capitals around the world, will continue. In these cases, militant individuals or Muslim war veterans will be drawn together to undertake the planning and execution of attacks against the interests of the U.S. and its allies. These individuals and groups may have no organizational relationship with al-Qaeda, but agree with bin Laden's rhetoric against the West and are willing to use violence to further this goal.

While it is possible to prevent al-Qaeda from developing into a larger and more sophisticated organization, it is less possible to prevent small-scale attacks from unknown and unidentified militants who develop plans to attack the West with the motive being equal to a religious and political grievance. Preventing these attacks will require the creation of a security state, a possibility that is not likely in Western countries. Of course, as long as vigilance remains high, it is also unlikely that Muslim militants will be able to execute a massive and sustained terror campaign. However, such knowledge is not especially reassuring to the West as it only takes one lucky and well-placed strike to cause a major catastrophe.


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