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Tuesday, 17 December, 2002, 09:30 GMT
Al-Qaeda: War fought in the shadows
Israelis were the intended target of the Kenya bombing
Al-Qaeda has switched its focus to 'soft' tourist targets

A year has passed since the Taleban and al-Qaeda were dislodged from their Afghan bases.

The shadowy Islamist organisation co-founded by Osama Bin Laden has slunk across the border into Pakistan, regrouped, dispersed and taken up the fight against the US and its allies with renewed vigour.

Mourner holds a US flag outside a British 9/11 memorial
Al-Qaeda planners dream of dealing a second crippling blow to US pride
We have only to look at the devastation wreaked by bombs in Kenya, Bali, Karachi and Tunisia to see that al-Qaeda and its offshoots are still a force to be reckoned with.

So what is their strategy?

The number one target for the senior leadership of al-Qaeda remains the continental United States.

From their hiding places in the backstreets of Pakistani cities, the mountainous villages along the Afghan border, and the countries of the Gulf, al-Qaeda planners and strategists still dream of dealing a second crippling blow to US pride.

Their supporters and sympathisers cannot resist discussing it, which is partly why Western intelligence keeps warning of alarmingly high levels of "chatter".

Target list

The CIA is aware of possible sleeper cells in the US. They say they may have been put in place even before 11 September.

What they do not know is why they have not tried to strike yet. It may be timing - there is talk of al-Qaeda waiting till the US goes to war with Iraq. Or it may be that America's key facilities are simply too well protected at the moment.

Bin Laden co-founded the al-Qaeda network
No one knows for sure whether Bin Laden is dead or alive
Al-Qaeda has a history of waiting patiently for the right opportunity and is not averse to changing its plans or cancelling a mission at the last minute.

But in the meantime, al-Qaeda and its affiliate groups have switched their sights onto softer targets - tourists in Bali, Tunisia, Kenya, and an unprotected oil tanker off the Yemeni coast.

Having failed to divide America from its Western allies, al-Qaeda now includes Britain, Australia and several European countries in its target list.

Iraq factor

The reason? Punishment for siding with President George W Bush's War on Terror which al-Qaeda - and indeed many Muslims around the world - see as a war on Islam.

US soldier training in the northern Kuwait desert
A possible US-led war with Iraq is inflaming Arab animosity against the West
With al-Qaeda's communications heavily disrupted and multi-million dollar bounties on the heads of its leaders, the organisation has had to become far less centralised. It has ceased to exist in the way it did before November 2001.

Instead, it is issuing cryptic calls through the internet, urging its followers to strike at Western and Israeli interests whenever they can.

This means that attacks on soft targets will inevitably become more frequent. The casualties may be lower than on 11 September but it will be almost impossible to guard against every plot.

So is there any good news for the West? Not a lot, is the answer. With a possible US-led war looming against Iraq, street-level Arab animosity towards the West is likely to increase.

Al-Qaeda will not be short of volunteers for future missions. True, its members are being picked up, handed over to the US and interrogated with increasing frequency.

But for every member captured, more seem to join the movement. This is a war fought in the shadows and it will likely continue for a very long time.

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See also:

13 Nov 02 | South Asia
03 Dec 02 | Africa
30 Aug 02 | Americas
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