Al-Qaeda's New Terror Tactic?

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Shakil Adil / AP

Asif Ali Zardari, wearing white cap on left, touches the coffin of his wife, Pakistan's former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Just 24 hours after the assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan's interior ministry announced what many people had suspected: al-Qaeda-linked extremists were responsible for the killing. The ministry said that one of Bhutto's assailants was a known member of the extremist organization Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a group it said was allied with al-Qaeda and the Taliban. If so, it could mean further evidence of a dramatic and disturbing diversification in Al-Qaeda's terrorism playbook.

Up until now, the violent methods employed by al-Qaeda and its operatives around the globe have largely eschewed single assassinations or the targeting of political leaders. Instead the group has preferred creating chaos and panic through large terror strikes that claim large numbers of random victims — carnage that creates pressure and fear in the societies and governments that the jihadists view as enemies. This was evident in the turmoil and trauma unleashed by al-Qaeda's strikes against civilian populations in Madrid, London, Bali and New York. The strategy, al-Qaeda has always believed, has longer effects on collective psychologies and morale than the assassination of lofty — and constantly protected — political leaders.

"One of the things that makes terrorism so difficult to prevent is it's designed to strike targets you don't really expect, or can't predict because they only look different from thousands of other potential targets in hindsight," says a French counter-terrorism official. "That's one reason why extremists haven't gone after political leaders often: those are the holders of real power everyone expects jihadists would want to kill."

But that isn't an ironclad policy — and it may be changing quickly. If the path from Bhutto's murder leads to the al-Qaeda camp, it could well indicate political assassination, once an exception to the rules, has now become a must-do in the jihadist playbook. Islamist radicals have been accused in the past of plotting to kill Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf because of his alliance with the U.S. and its war on terror. Those purported attempts produced near-misses at best. Similarly, Taliban extremists have tried and failed to assassinate Western-backed President Hamid Karzai in neighboring Afghanistan. In 2004, three extremists were arrested in Germany on accusations they were planning to assassinate Iraq's visiting Prime Minister, Ayad Allawi. And just last September, a member of Algeria's al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb killed 22 people in a suicide bombing that had as its primary target Algerian President Abdulaziz Bouteflika. The Algerian President survived.

"Going after a well-protected leader or politician is harder, so the situation has to be just right," says a French intelligence official. "That usually means ambient chaos, possible help from within security forces, and good chance of success."

All those elements may have been in place ahead of the attack on Bhutto. The problem is determining exactly who exploited them. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban had both previously threatened her for her pledges to modernize Pakistan, and promises to allow U.S. forces to hunt down jihadists on Pakistani soil. Military and intelligence forces in the country also considered her a threat. (Members of both Pakistani agencies have long been accused of ties with al-Qaeda and the Taliban.) Even members of the Musharraf government viewed Bhutto with hostility in the run-up to the Jan. 8 elections.

"So many people had a motive for killing her it's impossible to know who was responsible despite the theories and claims now being made," says the intelligence official. "There is so much scheming and double-dealing in Pakistan that the country is the analyst's worst nightmare. We may never really know what group was responsible, and what kind of help it got."

Perhaps, but no matter who was behind Bhutto's assassination, one thing seems clear early in its aftermath: it has helped create the uproar and turmoil al-Qaeda has always seen as its best method of destabilizing enemy regimes it wants to replace. "To al-Qaeda, any means of bringing that about is fair game," the French counter-terrorism official notes, saying the group's active involvement or connivance in Bhutto's murder may be a mere detail compared to the result. "If its leaders thought political assassination of Musharraf's main rival would create real trouble for Musharraf himself, why would they hesitate? They're willing to do anything, and with anyone's help."