Where Next for al-Qaeda?

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A security man at the scene of a suicide attack in Riyadh

The war in Iraq was a major challenge to al-Qaeda, whose propaganda had always maintained that the U.S. lacked the stomach for a fight, and whose leader's audiotaped call for retaliation for the U.S. invasion went largely unheeded. But lest anyone count Osama bin Laden's movement out of the post-Saddam Middle East equation, it struck back to devastating effect in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday: Some 29 people, including at least eight Americans are reported to have been killed in three coordinated suicide bombing attacks on heavily-guarded compounds housing foreigners in Riyadh. The attack was not wholly unexpected. On May 1, the State Department had warned Americans to stay away from the desert kingdom, citing intelligence reports of a terrorist attack in the final stages of preparation. Just last week, Saudi security officials uncovered a cell comprising some 19 al-Qaeda members allegedly planning attacks on the royal family (the suspects managed to elude capture after a shootout). Also last week, self-styled al-Qaeda operative Abu Mohammed al-Ablaj had emailed a message to a Saudi weekly newspaper warning that the movement was planning a major operation in the Gulf, "targeting the rear of the American army."

The attack marks a dramatic shift for al-Qaeda, which had for the most part avoided conducting terror operations on Saudi territory. And that could signal a change in al-Qaeda's strategic priorities in response to 18 months of pressure on the organization by the U.S. and its allies, as well as the changed reality in the Middle East now that the U.S. has settled in for a long occupation of Iraq.

Before 9/11, Afghanistan had served as a global hub and sanctuary for al-Qaeda, allowing it to run massive training camps to which tens of thousands of volunteer jihadis had flocked from all over the world. But the U.S.-led ouster of the Taliban regime put Bin Laden's men to flight, forcing them to scatter and decentralize their operations across Pakistan's cities and tribal areas, in remote parts of Chechnya and Georgia, in Morocco, Yemen and other Arab countries, possibly even in Iran according to some intelligence estimates, and, more recently, once again inside Afghanistan's increasingly anarchic countryside. Far greater emphasis was placed on these scattered cells taking local initiatives and striking at targets of opportunity.

The fact that its major strikes since 9/11 (before Tuesday's attack) had been directed at tourists and foreign workers in Bali, Tunisia, Kenya and Pakistan suggest the going has been tough for al-Qaeda and its sympathizers. Hundreds of operatives have been arrested in 98 countries through intensified intelligence cooperation between the U.S. and its European, Arab and Asian allies. Sources of funding have been squeezed, and enhanced security in Western countries has foiled a number of attacks in Europe and rendered the operational environment in the industrialized world considerably more perilous.

But terrorism analysts see the loose al-Qaeda networks as inherently adaptive to changing environments, and they are likely to have attempted to reorganize and further decentralize themselves to limit the damage wrought by U.S. capture of such kingpins Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Also, as much as the U.S. intelligence offensive of the past 18 months has disrupted al-Qaeda's operations, the U.S. military operation in Iraq has also offered the network new opportunities. Operations in Europe and the U.S. are far more difficult, right now, than they might have been before 9/11, but the arrival of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops in the Gulf region, and the long-term occupation and reconstruction mission in Iraq, dramatically increases the number of targets of opportunity available to al-Qaeda and allied organizations in their own backyard. Pan-Arab anger at the U.S. invasion of Iraq will almost certainly have swelled the ranks of locals willing to be recruited by al-Qaeda, and whereas before 9/11 that might have meant a trip to a camp in Afghanistan, the new al-Qaeda is more likely to bring the training to recruits who are already "embedded" in the operational theater. And rather than recruiting only those capable of participating in sophisticated terror plots thousands of miles away, it may also be tempted to broaden its scope to establish local "mujahedeen" to wage hit-and-run and suicide attacks on Americans in their midst.

While maintaining the threat of attacks against the U.S. mainland, recent statements purporting to be from al-Qaeda emphasize a new focus on operations in the Arab world. "Among the priorities of Al-Qaeda's new strategy, besides strikes at the heart of the United States, are operations in the Gulf countries an countries allied to America, particularly Egypt and Jordan," says an email sent to a Saudi newspaper last week ostensibly from Al Qaeda operative al-Ablaj.

The Saudi attacks raise a further question: Will al-Qaeda now move to translate its hostility to U.S.-allied Arab regimes into direct attacks on those regimes, or will it simply target U.S. personnel and civilians on their soil? Palestinian Islamist groups, for example, tend to challenge the Palestinian Authority not by targeting Palestinian security personnel, but by sending suicide bombers into Israel at times when the PA is seeking to implement cease-fires. There would certainly be a danger of a backlash against Bin Laden even from sympathetic Saudis if he launched a campaign of violence at home against fellow Muslims. Then again, the Egyptian Islamists who make up a major component of al-Qaeda's senior leadership have a long-established tradition of direct and bloody attacks on their own government. And the al-Qaeda leadership may read the decision by the U.S. to withdraw most of its troops from Saudi Arabia as a signal of the growing vulnerability of a regime they regard as illegitimate.

Al-Qaeda's recent statements also speak of a reorganization, deploying new leadership and new structures to repair the damage wrought by the U.S. and its allies since 9/11. Thabet bin Qais, who used a known al-Qaeda's communication channel with the Arab media to announce himself as the movement's new spokesman, warned in an email that al-Qaeda had "carried out changes in its leadership and sidelined the September 11, 2001 team," and that it would take the U.S. a long time to comprehend the movement's new form. That could simply be bravado in the face of damaging blows by its enemies, but analysts have long warned that al-Qaeda is almost certain to have changed its modus operandi under the weight of sustained U.S. assault.

The Saudi bombings are a reminder that al-Qaeda is very much alive after 18 months of the war on terror. But while an occasional attempt to mount a spectacular attack on the U.S. mainland remains a real danger, changed circumstances and opportunities may tempt the network to focus its efforts in the Arab territories whose "liberation" from U.S. influence remains one of the movement's founding objectives.