16 September 2001

U.S. Faces Islamic Radical Network 2100 GMT, 010916 Summary This week's terrorist attacks demonstrate clearly for the first time the existence of a multi-national, global network of Islamic radicals and their sympathizers. The United States is gearing up for war against an enemy that may span half the globe and is comprised of thousands individuals and different organizations. Analysis The United States has declared war on international terrorism. In his weekly radio address Sept. 15 U.S. President George W. Bush warned Americans to brace themselves for "a conflict without battlefields or beachheads," and called on U.S. military personnel to get ready for battle. The president earlier met with his top security advisors at Camp David in order to hammer out a U.S. military response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Identifying the enemy, however, will be neither simple nor straightforward.

A number of officials including U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell have named Saudi exile Osama bin Laden as the chief suspect. But evidence suggests that while his umbrella organization Al-Qaida was involved at some point, bin Laden himself isn't likely the mastermind behind the attacks. The skill and scope of the operation indicates that more than one base of support was necessary. The operational resources required to pull off this week's attacks indicate the existence of a much larger threat, a multi-national radical Islamic network with operatives and sympathizers all across the globe. Such a network likely connects a variety of Islamic radical and terrorist groups. Understanding this is the key to Washington's warfighting strategy. In aiming to dismantle the infrastructure supporting terrorist groups, the United States will now begin focusing efforts on identifying members and supporters of this global network. Bin Laden and Al-Qaida will likely be only the first targets. As the world's most notorious terrorist leader bin Laden has provided training, logistics and support to a host of Islamic radicals including Algerian, Egyptian, Jordanian, Pakistani, Sudanese, Syrian and Yemeni nationals.

His training camps in Afghanistan provide a basis for learning the tools and techniques of terrorism. In a way bin Laden could be thought of as the president of a university devoted to the education of radical Islamic terrorists. But taking out bin Laden won't end the threat of more terrorist attacks against the United States, since logic dictates that Al-Qaida could not have been the only organization involved in the Sept. 11 strikes. Like any business venture, no one group would be able to supply all the resources. Instead, various aspects of the operation would be farmed out to different groups or individuals within the network. Al-Qaida as an umbrella organization is but one group within a network of radical Islamic organizations that stretches from Cairo to Manila, from Kabul to Algiers. The sheer scope and skill with which the operations were carried out required several levels of planning, organizing, intelligence and operational experience and capabilities. The masterminds behind this week's operation began forming their attack plan years ago. They then needed to locate funding and likely turned to sympathetic financiers who could arrange for aid from even more sympathetic donors.

The planners also set up separate departments with directors to handle counterintelligence, logistics, training, diplomatic covers and passports, finances and recruitment. At the same time, security is maintained by isolating each department from the others so that the organization is not compromised. Each division required support from a variety of sources, which neither bin Laden nor his network could provide. In fact, to say bin Laden himself masterminded the assault overlooks some important limitations under which he is currently operating. For one he is trapped in Afghanistan and is limited in what he can do. The Saudi dissident cannot even make phone calls and has had to resort to courier services in order to communicate with his associates. For years, the United States tracked communications in country and listened in on his phone conversations made over the Immarsat-3 satellite telephone network. Directing an operation like the one that took place Sept. 11 would require flexible management that could adapt to a variety of situations, necessitating quick and reliable means of communication. Even financing the operation would have required resources beyond bin Laden and Al-Qaida's ability. According to U.S. officials quoted by United Press International, Washington had bin Laden's financial and operational networks almost "completely mapped" out in detail by mid-1997. This suggest that bin Laden's finances have been at most severely limited and at least under constant surveillance.

It would have been impossible for his bankers to wire money to operatives in the United States without tipping off U.S. intelligence agencies. Clearly, bin Laden could not have financed this week's operation alone. Al-Qaida could have easily provided training and perhaps even recruits. But there are several other organizations that could also be tapped for intelligence, logistical assistance, operational planning and financing. For example, the Egyptian group al-Gama'at al-Islamiyya orchestrated the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and has experience operating in the United States. It also has links to Egyptian intelligence and business leaders who travel frequently and could provide information on airline security standards in the United States. Another example can be seen in the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen last October. The group blamed for that attack has been linked to bin Laden, but there is no evidence that it acted directly under his command. That group, like the recent attackers, employed crude tactics and weapons in a sophisticated manner to cause massive damage. It managed to severely damage a U.S. destroyer, not to mention the U.S. sense of dominance, with a rubber inflatable boat. Indeed, there are hundreds of radical Islamic organizations operating around the world, all individual and distinct from each other, that could have provided support. Although in the past a majority focused on local issues and did not operate beyond their national borders, a new picture is now emerging. This picture is one of a global network tying all Islamic groups together in a loose coalition.

Like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, this network is comprised of organizations and sympathetic individuals from all over the Muslim world, including financiers and aid donors, government officials and diplomats, former and possibly current military officers, intelligence agents, former and current guerrilla and militant groups, information technology specialists and operational commanders and their lieutenants. It is then quite possible that the group that masterminded the Sept. 11 terror attacks is comprised of a collection of individuals from several different countries. Indeed, the FBI's list of suspects reads like a student roster from the renowned Al-Ahzar University in Cairo. The operatives who carried out the attack came from countries across the Middle East, including possibly Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. There was no local issue tying them all together. The United States thinks it is going to war with bin Laden, Al-Qaida or the unnamed group directly responsible for this week's attacks. But taking down the infrastructure supporting these groups will require the U.S. to identify and dismantle the larger, global network. That, like dismantling the drug trafficking networks in Latin America, West Africa or Europe, will be a monumental task.