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Friday, 23 November, 2001, 17:19 GMT
Arrests disrupt al-Qaeda
Saudi-born dissident Osama Bin Laden (C) with deputies Ayman Al-Zawahiri (L), and Mohamed Atef (R)
International spotlight brings unwelcome attention too
By BBC News Online's David Chazan

Security services in dozens of countries are reported to have arrested hundreds of people with alleged links to Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.

In the United States, more than 1,100 people have been detained as part of the war on terrorism declared by President George W Bush.

Security experts say the arrests and the freezing of bank accounts in different countries have severely disrupted al-Qaeda.

"You can't have that much attention worldwide without affecting morale and efficiency," said Professor Lawrence Freedman of the Centre for Defence Studies at King's College in London.

Torture and beatings

But because al-Qaeda appears to be a network of fairly autonomous cells, security experts say it is difficult to put them all out of action.

"You can never be sure that you've got the lot or that individuals might not do something awful in response to action taken against the group," Mr Freedman said.

Spanish police photo of Mohamed Jamil Derbah
Mohamed Jamil Derbah: Arrested in Spain
Another problem is the reliability of evidence or confessions obtained by some countries whose security services have a reputation for tough methods or torture.

Washington is reported to have found co-operation with Egyptian intelligence services particularly useful.

Several suspects arrested in other countries have been sent for interrogation or trial to Egypt, where the security services have been accused of torturing suspected terrorists.

"It's clear that in present circumstances there's going to be a tendency to cut corners and that needs to be avoided at this time more than any other," said international human rights lawyer Philippe Sands.

In the United States, police chiefs appear divided over the need to investigate the 11 September attacks and the concern that a plan to question thousands of men of Middle Eastern origin seems like racial profiling.

Human rights concerns

"There's no question that racial profiling is happening and it raises human rights concerns," Mr Sands said.

You can't have that much attention worldwide without affecting morale and efficiency

Professor Lawrence Freedman
Concern is also increasing about new legislation being introduced to help in the war on terror.

Mr Bush has called for the creation of military tribunals to try suspected terrorists - including those who are not US citizens.

"This is one of the most troubling pieces of legislation ever, both from the perspective of international law and a human rights perspective," Mr Sands said.

There are also worries that authoritarian leaders might use terrorism allegations as an excuse to put their political opponents behind bars.

In Kenya, Muslim leaders have taken the authorities to court to prevent the extradition of Kenyan suspects to the US following the arrests of about 50 Muslims.

Islamic leaders said members of Kenya's minority Muslim community were being targeted in what they said was an investigation into al-Qaeda.

A watchful eye

Britain has come under fire from French investigators for its alleged failure to arrest suspected Islamic militants.

Some counter-terrorism experts, however, argue that it could be more useful to leave some suspects at liberty and monitor their activities.

"We can keep an eye on those people, and in a country like Britain, especially with the increased surveillance we've got these days, we can be pretty sure they won't be able to plan anything too nasty without us knowing about it," said a British police officer who has been involved in the campaign to round up suspected militants.

In the United States, professionals in several fields - including reporters, medical workers and pharmacists - are reported to be re-assessing whether their obligation of confidentiality should still take precedence over the need to track down terrorists.

In one case, a librarian broke a Florida law guaranteeing confidentiality for library users by calling police when she recognised suspected hijackers as men who had come to her library.

See also:

22 Nov 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Al-Qaeda's origins and links
18 Sep 01 | South Asia
Who is Osama Bin Laden?
16 Oct 01 | Middle East
Analysis: The roots of jihad
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