Can Al-Qaeda Find a New Nest?

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What they left behind: Papers found in a suspected al-Qaeda compound

Afghanistan was such a cozy home base for al-Qaeda. The network enjoyed luxuries like its own air-shuttle service, using the national airline Ariana to ship terrorist cargo and personnel, including Osama bin Laden's bodyguards and their families, between Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf or East Africa. Sometimes al-Qaeda agents would even slip in and out of other countries disguised as Ariana flight attendants, according to aviation sources.

To the men who ran al-Qaeda, the rugged, war-torn wasteland of Afghanistan was a kind of paradise. Under the benevolent tolerance of the Taliban, the bosses of international terrorism found just the kind of sanctuary they needed to recruit, train and plot their deadly attacks. But by last week any members of al-Qaeda who had escaped U.S. daisy-cutter bombs and Afghan bounty hunters were on the lam and in desperate search for a new base. Besides such fugitives, there are an unknown number of operatives safely lodged in secret cells scattered from the hinterlands of Yemen to the jungles of the Philippines to the suburban streets of America. Now, as the terrorists struggle to keep operations running and Washington moves from hunting down bin Laden to rooting out his worldwide acolytes, the next order of battle for the U.S. will be to make sure no other country offers them the kind of vital sanctuary they enjoyed in Afghanistan.

Even terrorists need a headquarters. The people who command and control the network — even one with task forces and affiliates as loose and decentralized as al-Qaeda's — can't operate effectively for long without a communications and finance center. Most of all, they have got to have training camps where they can indoctrinate suicide attackers, explosives experts, document forgers and dedicated jihadis to replenish the terrorist ranks. Every successful mission, after all, depletes the pool.

Whatever new leadership emerges in al-Qaeda will be seeking a similar kind of place for a new home base — a secure, isolated location with a sympathetic local population and a weak central government. But it will not be easy this time. Under pressure from the U.S. or out of fear they might be targeted next, the usual suspects when it comes to sponsoring terrorism (e.g., Sudan, Libya) are moving to clean up their act and countries that often turn a blind eye to terrorist groups in their midst (e.g., Yemen, Pakistan) are starting to crack down.

The U.S. campaign to deny al-Qaeda a second life elsewhere in the world counts mainly on diplomacy, intelligence and law enforcement. Military sources tell Time that the Pentagon has asked regional commanders to draw up plans for throttling an array of militants from the Middle East to Africa to Asia. But the basic idea is to push friendly nations and those worried about self-preservation to take out terrorist hubs. Already, Pentagon officials tell Time, 100 U.S. special-ops commandos will deploy to train Philippine soldiers in counterterror and close-quarter battle tactics against the Abu Sayyaf insurgents who have ties to al-Qaeda. The U.S. military advisers won't engage in combat but will set up an "intelligence fusion center" to help clamp down on terrorist activities. "It's one of the areas that have to get cleaned up," says a U.S. intelligence official. So where might al-Qaeda look for a safe spot to reconstitute its executive branch?

PAKISTAN: Right next door to Afghanistan is one of the most dangerous and unsettling spots the terrorists could choose. President Pervez Musharraf, having thrown his lot in with Washington, is under keen pressure to bottle up fleeing al-Qaeda men. His government has made valiant efforts lately to seal the long, porous border. But once fugitives from Afghanistan make it across, they will find broad pockets of sympathy throughout the provinces of Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier. In those semiautonomous tribal areas, Islamabad's authority has been limited, though army presence has been beefed up recently.

The terrorist assault on India's Parliament last week, in which the five attackers and seven Indians were killed, exposed just how complex and politically delicate it will be to control the terrorist net in Pakistan. The government has long armed and approved jihadis in Kashmir, though it admits only to providing diplomatic and moral support. The jihadis are considered freedom fighters by Pakistan but employ what India refers to as "cross-border terrorism" in their drive to expel India from the territory that Pakistan also claims. After Sept. 11, the Pakistani intelligence service sent signals to the Kashmir saboteurs to cool it. Yet India believes one of the three main radical groups almost certainly dispatched the suicide gunmen last week on their brazen assault against the center of India's democracy. Pakistan may now have to confront its sponsorship of groups that employ terrorist tactics in Kashmir. Ditching the Taliban was simple in comparison.

Meanwhile, elements of al-Qaeda could move in under cover of these groups — or worse yet, try to find a friendly home there by joining forces with Pakistan's hard-line religious parties to overthrow Musharraf and install an Islamic regime. Pakistan's nuclear arsenal alone makes that an alluring goal. For his survival, Musharraf will have to get Pakistan out of the terrorism business.

SOMALIA: The failed state in the Horn of Africa looks tailor-made for a hangout for al-Qaeda. The country has no central government to speak of. Like Afghanistan, it's divided into fiefdoms presided over by competing clan leaders and warlords whose temporary loyalties can readily be bought. Muslim by faith, most Somalis are impoverished nomads who move between temporary huts. And Somalia has a homegrown militant group called al-Itihaad al-Islamiya (Unity of Islam) that the U.S. says is linked to al-Qaeda. The group was once host to a few training camps near the Kenyan border and in the semiautonomous northeastern area known as Puntland.

Washington took the possibility that al-Qaeda could regroup in Somalia seriously enough to start patrolling the sea lanes a month ago. Forces from an allied flotilla stop and search 30 to 40 ships a day to make sure no fugitive terrorists are sneaking across. Naval vessels that can intercept communications hover in the Arabian Sea to cut off al-Qaeda messages and disrupt possible supply shipments.

Last week five American officials dropped into western Somalia to talk with local warlords and Ethiopian military officers eager to subdue any Islamist threat to their country. Some analysts called the visit a scouting trip to pick out possible terrorist targets. Pentagon officials have been talking up the presence of al-Qaeda cells there, and if Washington feels a need to strike somewhere else, Somalia is an uncontroversial military and political target. But regional experts said the presence of U.S. intelligence agents was meant as a warning: we're watching you; we can readily get in and get out; be careful.

Inside Somalia, locals doubt the terrorists are heading their way. Somalis tend to gossip too much for foreigners to feel secure, and few Somalis could resist the price on the heads of al-Qaeda leaders. "We would hand them over and claim the money to pay our men," says Mogadishu chief of police Hassan Awaale. "We have enough problems of our own without more [from them]." U.N. officials, Western diplomats and aid workers agree that al-Itihaad training camps of the '90s don't exist anymore and that the group was destroyed as a military force after Ethiopian forces entered Somalia and overran the group in 1997.

YEMEN: It's bin Laden's ancestral land and long a hideout for terrorists, who can gather comfortably in the mountainous hinterlands well beyond the government's control. Plenty of former mujahedin who came home from the anti-Soviet Afghan war took up the bandit life and now abet Islamic radicals, and al-Qaeda sympathizers are in the army and bureaucracy. Al-Qaeda operatives arrested for bombing the U.S.S. Cole in 2000 received false documents from a former mujahedin fighter working for the Yemeni government. The country, says a senior Western diplomat in the capital of Sana'a, "is an important node for terrorist groups." Al-Qaeda agents ran free as facilitators to move people, supply documents and look after finances until the Cole attack proved they also had operational capabilities.

That brought the U.S. down on Yemen's neck, as intelligence and FBI officials crowded in to investigate. It got more difficult for al-Qaeda men to go underground as the spooks threw big money around to put bandit lords on their payroll. Washington still complained bitterly that Yemen was not cooperating fully, but things changed after Sept. 11. The Yemeni government sized up the new risks in courting American displeasure, and President Ali Abdullah Saleh went to Washington last month showing "helpful new energy" in pursuing terrorists. Yemen began to share the intelligence Washington had begged for. Radical preachers were silenced, at least 100 former Afghan Arabs were arrested and the honey shops named by Washington as fronts for al-Qaeda financing were shuttered.

SUDAN: If Khartoum still needed telling, the fierce American campaign in Afghanistan served up a sobering reminder. The country's previous involvement with bin Laden brought on cruise-missile strikes in 1998, and there's no eagerness to repeat that experience. Six years on the State Department's terrorist list taught Sudan the economic cost of getting cozy with terrorists. The Islamic regime does remain suspect for nurturing extremism. Its diplomats were allegedly involved this year in a plot — dreamed up by an al-Qaeda agent connected to the Cole and East African embassy attacks — to bomb the U.S. embassy in India. But the Sudanese government claims its tolerance for that stuff is over, since Islamic militant Hassan al-Turabi, formerly the guiding light of the National Islamic Front government, fell from favor and was arrested last year.

Enticed by U.S. promises of aid and a rethinking of Sudan's appearance on the terrorist list, and pushed hard by Egypt, Sudan began rescinding its support for terrorism a year ago. Its cooperation against the Islamists jumped noticeably after the Twin Towers fell, as terrorist suspects were detained or expelled. A few weeks ago, Sudan began handing Washington rich files from the years it spent monitoring al-Qaeda and extremist affiliates passing through.

SOUTHEAST ASIA: Could violent Islamist groups in nations like Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines take up the relay of training jihad fighters? Al-Qaeda is said to have cells and camps set up in the Philippines and has made common cause with the Abu Sayyaf rebels fighting for a Muslim state on the island of Mindanao. The damp jungles may not be familiar turf for al-Qaeda fighters, but they made a safe guerrilla beachhead for the Abu Sayyaf. The Bush Administration has promised President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo $19 million to combat the rebels and will soon send a stockpile of modern weaponry.

Counterterrorism officials know destroying the Afghan command center will not necessarily disrupt al-Qaeda's operations, even if every one of the 50 countries where its spores have spread prevents "the base" from securing a new haven. Bin Laden trained 11,000 terrorists at his Afghan camps, and most of those alumni fanned out to other countries. Key lieutenants, like Abu Zubaydah, bin Laden's training-camp chief, and Mustafa Ahmed, the al-Qaeda paymaster, vanished in early September. Three alleged 9/11 accomplices based in Germany are still at large. And undetectable "sleepers" were implanted across the globe some time ago. Without a sanctuary like Afghanistan, the terrorists' capacity to conceive and carry out grand attacks in a centralized manner has clearly been undermined. Trouble is, not all the terrorism inspired by al-Qaeda needs to be handed down from the top. "They can be self-initiating at the grassroots level," says Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at St. Andrews University in Scotland. "Each individual member considers himself to have the authority to issue a fatwa. If we look only for the leadership and traditional nature of authority, it's a mistake."

Reported by Hannah Bloch/Islamabad, Massimo Calabresi and Douglas Waller/Washington, Helen Gibson/London, Scott MacLeod/Cairo, Tim McGirk/Kandahar and Simon Robinson/Mogadishu