May 26, 2004
By Richard Norton-Taylor
The occupation of Iraq has provided a "potent global recruitment pretext" for al-Qaida and probably increased worldwide terrorism, a leading thinktank said yesterday.
Despite some losses, al-Qaida has more than 18,000 potential terrorists at large and its ranks are growing, the International Institute for Strategic Studies said, adding that al-Qaida now had a presence in more than 60 countries.
Last night, a new warning emerged from the US that al-Qaida-type terrorists are preparing to launch a major attack in the US this summer. The warning came from a counter-terrorism official who told Associated Press that the intelligence was the most disturbing garnered since the September 11 attacks.
The IISS survey said that despite the death or capture of half of its 30 senior leaders, as well as some 2,000 rank-and-file supporters, a rump leadership of the al-Qaida network was still intact.
"Christian nations' forcible occupation of Iraq, a historically important land of Islam, has more than offset any calming effect of the US military withdrawal from Saudi Ara bia," the IISS said. It added: "With Osama bin Laden's public encouragement, up to 1,000 foreign jihadists have infiltrated Iraq."
The earlier invasion of Afghanistan forced al-Qaida to change its tactics, said the IISS. "While al-Qaida lost a recruiting magnet and a training, command and operations base, it was compelled to disperse and become even more decentralised, 'virtual', and invisible".
It delegated more responsibility to "local talent," with recruits becoming "less religiously absolute in mindset [and] closer to their enemies in background". This could make them more open to penetration by western security and intelligence agencies, the thinktank suggested.
Any security offensive against al-Qaida must be accompanied by political developments, such as the democratisation of Iraq and the resolution of conflict in Israel, it said.
In a report uncharacteristically critical of America, the IISS warned that Iraq is facing a "security vacuum".
Middle-ranking members of the Saddam regime have been able to deploy their weapons, "gain ideological purchase and resonance with a new brand of Islamic nationalism, and to mobilise Sunni fears of Shi'ite and Kurdish domination and a growing resentment at foreign occupation. It is unlikely that there has been a 'hidden hand' centrally coordinating and funding the insurgency".
The IISS report added: "Heavy-handed searches by US troops in hunting for leading members of the old regime have more to do with Falluja's becoming a centre of violent opposition to US occupation than does Ba'ath loyalism."
The priority of a new Iraqi government, John Chipman, director of the IISS, said yesterday, must be a new army and police force.
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