Al-Qaida Reloaded: Five Years After 9/11, Bin Laden's Network Is Back

By Yassin Musharbash

As Western intelligence agencies are discovering, al-Qaida is by no means finished. Training camps have reappeared in Afghanistan and now in Pakistan, as Osama bin Laden's terrorist network regains its strength.

The news is alarming. US and French intelligence agencies are convinced that terrorist network Al-Qaida has reorganized, and even that it has developed new training camps, both in Afghanistan and the remote tribal regions of northern Pakistan. They believe that a new generation of terrorists has come of age, and some are suspected of planning attacks in the West.

Five and a half years have passed since Sept. 11, 2001 and the beginning of the war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The physical presence of Osama bin Laden's network was largely destroyed at the time, with the terrorist camps which had trained an estimated 20,000 men quickly reduced to rubble. Two years ago, the White House crowed that two-thirds of Al-Qaida's leadership had been eliminated. "We're winning," US President George W. Bush claimed recently. "Al-Qaida is on the run."

But are they really on the run? Of course, there can be no doubt that the network no longer has nearly the capacity it had when it organized 9/11. But the attempts to reorganize are obvious, and the new camps are an indication that the efforts have been successful. According to Time magazine, each of the camps has the capacity to train between 10 and 300 jihadists. "We know they exist, but it's like finding a needle in a haystack," the magazine quotes a US military official in Afghanistan as saying.

The border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, Major General Michael D. Maples of the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) recently said, is "a refuge for al-Qaida." The Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's foreign intelligence agency, agrees, calling the region a "deployment zone for the new al-Qaida." Indeed, a German who planned to travel to Waziristan recently attracted the attention of German authorities.

The CIA and US Vice President Dick Cheney have already made their concerns clear to the Pakistani government of President Pervez Musharraf. To back up their claims, they brought along marked-up maps. Not much is visible on the black-and-white images at first glance. However the maps show small but significant settlements -- the camps US intelligence believes are al-Qaida's new training facilities are often little more than farm-like structures that usually consist of two or three houses surrounded by high walls.

Islamabad has always had trouble controlling the so-called "tribal areas" where the camps are located. Tribal leaders operate here as they please and offer shelter to members of al-Qaida and the Taliban. Although some US military officials are already discussing air attacks on Pakistani territory without Musharraf's approval, those who prefer not to undermine the authority of the country's military leader any further still have the upper hand at the Pentagon. "We believe they could do more," new US Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell said bluntly in February, referring to the US's Pakistani allies.

Al-Qaida's coming home

Al-Qaida has proven to be extremely robust in recent years. The network's reaction to the war in Afghanistan came in the form of two decisions. The veterans, Bin Laden ordered, were to return to their home countries and continue the organization's work from there. Terrorism experts dubbed the phenomenon "al-Qaida comes home," in an effort to make sense of the network's sudden presence virtually everywhere, as attacks in places from Bali to Madrid and Riyadh to London showed.

The second reaction was to open up the network to its sympathizers. Al-Qaida leaders made it clear that all the organization's supporters should feel free to commit acts of terror in the name of the network, and they provided both the ideology and the necessary know-how.

Although it acknowledged both reactions with horror, the Western world was convinced about one thing: that at least al-Qaida's former headquarters had been wiped out.

But apparently al-Qaida was also capable of finding ways to revitalize itself in this respect. A whole new generation of al-Qaida fighters has moved up the ranks, intelligence services warn.

Ayman al-Zawahri, bin Laden's second-in-command, could be pulling more strings than was previously believed. According to CIA agents operating in Pakistan, the Egyptian has the capability to respond to inquiries from other field commanders within 24 hours. "The days of rigorous caution seem to be over, and men like Al-Zawahri are becoming more self-confident," a Western intelligence official recently said in Islamabad. In one case intelligence agents even intercepted instructions on how to deal with prisoners. "The chain of command has been re-established," the New York Times quotes a US official as saying.

It was the investigations that followed on the heels of terrorist attacks in the West that brought the intelligence agencies to the conclusion that al-Qaida must have more organizational structures than previously believed. Last summer, Islamists planned to blow up several passenger aircraft en route from London to the United States. The plan was thwarted, but the tracks led, for the first time in a long while, back to a known al-Qaida heavyweight. According to the New York Times, Egyptian Abu Ubaidah al-Masri is viewed as a key figure in the planned attack. He is considered a possible successor to Hamza Rabia, the al-Qaida operations chief who was killed in 2005 and was already the fourth successor of the legendary Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

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