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Wednesday, 17 April, 2002, 10:51 GMT 11:51 UK
BBC4 World Forum: Ask al-Qaeda terrorism expert

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In our weekly BBC4 World Forum, George Alagiah put your questions to the terrorism expert, Dr Rohan Gunaratna, a research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St Andrew's University and author of the book Inside Al Qaeda.

The trial of five men suspected of links to Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network has opened in Frankfurt under dramatic circumstances.

The men are charged with membership of a terrorist group.

The opening of the trial was delayed for two hours after a legal row over whether the men could be filmed in court. One defendant was also thrown out of court after shouting anti-Jewish slogans and using threatening language.

Massive security precautions have been put in place for what is seen as the most important terrorism trial since the 11 September attacks.

Four of the five, who are all of Algerian descent, are accused of plotting to bomb the Christmas market in the eastern French city of Strasbourg in December 2000.

Germany became a focus of investigation into al-Qaeda cells after it emerged that three of the hijackers involved in the 11 September attacks had studied in the northern city of Hamburg.

No direct connection has been established between the defendants and the attacks on the United States.

What can be achieved at this trial? How big a threat does al-Qaeda still pose? And just how widespread is its network?


George Alagiah:

Hello, I'm George Alagiah. Welcome to our special BBC4 World Forum. Tonight after the first day of the trial of five Al-Qaeda suspects in Frankfurt, we're discussing just how big a threat Al-Qaeda really is. We'll be putting some of your questions, by e-mail and text message to the terrorism expert, Dr Rohan Gunaratna. He's a research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrew's University.

Thank you Rohan Gunaratna for joining us. Let's get straight on with what I think might be a slightly shorter show than usual. This is from Ed Vista in the UK: I'm interested to know how someone becomes an expert on a fragmented terrorist organisation that by definition does not know what its other cells are doing at any given time.

Dr Rohan Gunaratna:

The Al-Qaeda organisation has existed for over 10 years and Al-Qaeda organisation came under intense study only after August 1998, after the East Africa bombings. It is only after that the Western security and intelligence community started to follow the Al-Qaeda trail very closely.

George Alagiah:

Mike in the USA: It matters not if Bin Laden is alive or dead. I think Al-Qaeda's various cells are capable of operating completely on their own. Is this the case, do you think?

Dr Rohan Gunaratna:

Osama Bin Laden, being a charismatic leader and the man who built the organisation, I believe that if he is killed it will be a significant blow to the organisation. However, as long as the Islamist milieu prevails Al-Qaeda will always replenish its losses and its wastage and will continue to wage its campaign.

George Alagiah:

Monica in Italy: Most people at this stage have come to realise that it's within our own borders that we have to fear the existence of the Al-Qaeda terrorist cells. Where are the highest concentrations of these cells likely to exist?

Dr Rohan Gunaratna:

Al-Qaeda has a significant presence in western Europe and in North America - two areas where they can move with relative ease. It is because in liberal democracies there is freedom of movement, freedom of association and freedom of protest. So I believe that as long as these conditions are intact, it will be possible for Al-Qaeda to operate, generate significant support, generate resources, generate recruits and continue their campaign.

George Alagiah:

Ghilman Grundi in Taiwan: Is Al-Qaeda really the leading force in Islamic extremism? What connections do organisations like the Filipino Muslim Group, Abu Sayyaf, have to Al-Qaeda?

Dr Rohan Gunaratna:

Al-Qaeda is the pioneering vanguard of the Islamists. In fact the founding document of Al-Qaeda, Abdullah Azam who wrote the charter of Al-Qaeda, he states that an Al-Qaeda fighter is supposed to be the pioneering vanguard in the fight against the enemies of the Islam and in that way, the Al-Qaeda fighter is better motivated and better trained.

To answer the second part of the question, Al-Qaeda is linked with a number of associated organisations. Abu Zayyaf Group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the GSPC group in Algeria. All these groups are associated groups of Al-Qaeda.

George Alagiah:

Khalid Rahim in Canada: Do you really think that the present action being taken in the war against terrorism will eradicate the problem? Don't you think that the root causes of terrorism have yet to be addressed?

Dr Rohan Gunaratna:

I believe that the fight against terrorism should be multi-pronged and multi-dimensional. So one aspect of the war against terrorism is to militarily fight those who have taken arms.

A secondary and tertiary dimension is to politically address the root causes - to have prophylactic measures. But the military, political, diplomatic, social economic and the informational responses are critical. So it should be a multi-pronged, multi-dimensional, multi-agency and a multi-national response that will finally win the war against terrorism.

George Alagiah:

On a related subject, you talk about root causes. Jennifer in the UK asks: The action in Afghanistan may have weakened Al-Qaeda but the current troubles in the Middle East could potentially give them a new lease of life. Don't you think that the Israeli incursions into Palestinian territories coupled with the weak reaction of the international community could undoubtedly create a large number of potential recruits for the terrorists?

Dr Rohan Gunaratna:

It is a very good question. In fact, as long as the anti-terrorist coalition is not going to have support from the Muslim countries and the Muslim public, it will be very difficult for the international community to win this fight. So it is imperative to build support especially among Middle Eastern, Central Asian and South East Asian countries in order to ensure that Muslims do not feel that this is a battle against them and that it is a battle against a terrorist organisation.

George Alagiah:

There was an eleven month time-gap between the attack on the USS Cole and the 11th September attacks, do you think that there could be another major attack on the West occurring this year?

Dr Rohan Gunaratna:

Al-Qaeda has the capability of planning more than one operation at any given time. In fact Al-Qaeda planned the USS Cole operation at least a year before that. Al-Qaeda planned the 9/11 operation for one-and-a-half years. So Al-Qaeda has a a number of operations. But it is very difficult for Al-Qaeda to conduct a major operation like 9/11 at this moment because of unprecedented international security and intelligence co-operation and the high alertness that exists in all the agencies - customs, immigration, police, security and intelligence.

Key stories

European probe


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15 Apr 02 | Americas
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