New threats from al-Qaeda

New threats from al-Qaeda


The events of the last few weeks underline the global threat posed by al-Qaeda, which will probably now turn to targets in Europe. Spain should pay particular attention to this risk.


the recent attack in Mombassa shows that the Islamic terrorist network can strike against any country in the world and will probably pinpoint those countries whose anti-terrorist measures are weakest. The attack comes only a short time after Bin Laden threatened various Western countries and after a number of people warned of a possible attack against Europe. Meanwhile, international anti-terrorist cooperation in the last few weeks has led to the arrest of several prominent members of al-Qaeda and possibly thwarted a number of attacks. All this goes to show that the war against terrorism is winnable, but that Europe, too, is under threat.


The terrorist attack in Kenya on 28 November bore the hallmark of al-Qaeda. A complex two-pronged attack against a hotel and an airliner, including the use of ground-to-air missiles, aimed at both Israel and an African country for which tourism is the major revenue source, matches Bin Laden’s strategy perfectly. In fact, in the last few weeks the sound of alarm bells has been heard in various places, fears of an attack in Europe being particularly strong.

The first public warning came on 5 November when August Henning, head of German intelligence, said that al-Qaeda was preparing a major onslaught. On 7 November, David Blunkett, UK Home Secretary, said that Britain was under threat of a possible gas attack or one employing a ‘dirty bomb’ (a conventional explosive surrounded by radioactive material which scatters when the bomb explodes), only for the latter warning to be replaced the next day by a more general alert. That day, 8 November, Ronald Noble, Interpol’s secretary-general, said that Osama Bin Laden was alive and that al-Qaeda was preparing a large-scale attack. On 11 November, it was the turn of the secretary-general of NATO, Lord Robertson, to announce that al-Qaeda was planning something in Europe. This was apparently confirmed by Bin Laden himself on 12 November on a tape broadcast by the television channel Al Jazeera, when he directly threatened Britain, France, Italy and Germany. On 17 November, the Sunday Times carried the story, subsequently denied by the British authorities, that MI5 had foiled a poison gas attack on the London Underground. And on 19 November, an Islamic preacher resident in London, Sheik Omar Bakri, with links to the ‘International Islamic Front for the Holy War against Jews and Crusaders’, said in an interview that al-Qaeda was planning Internet hacker attacks against the world’s leading stock markets and multinationals, with potentially disastrous consequences for the world economy.

So, has the al-Qaeda threat really increased in Europe? Perhaps the authorities in Europe have come to the conclusion that, given the danger, it is better to warn people and place them in a state of alert, whose possible benefits, such as the identification of suspicious objects and behaviour, override the possible drawbacks of creating excessive anxiety. The need to carefully judge the positive and the negative repercussions explains why governments are so hesitant as to what information is publishable and what not; whence the alarming message about poison gas and ‘dirty bombs’, issued and then immediately withdrawn by the UK Home Office. However, the experts do not appear in any doubt that there is a definite threat to Europe. Magnus Ranstorp, deputy director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism of Scotland’s University of St Andrews, went on record recently saying that Europe definitely hosts al-Qaeda ‘sleepers’ and that it is not a question of whether an attack will occur but when and where.

In June of this year a confidential European Union report said that the threat was most serious for the UK and France. It also cited Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain. A subsequent report from France’s Renseignements Généraux said that the three countries most exposed to an al-Qaeda attack were, in this order, the UK, Germany and France. Some analysts estimate that although the wave of arrests had gaoled 150 suspects, al-Qaeda could still have hundreds of militants in Europe.

It is important to note that al-Qaeda is only the nucleus of a worldwide collection of Islamic terrorist groups, each with its own roots. In Europe the authorities have detected terrorists belonging to organisations linked to al-Qaeda such as the Algerian ‘Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat’, the mysterious Takfir wal-Hijra, or a new international Islamic group named Al-Tawhid, which the German authorities suspect of having organised an attack on a synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba last April. Some French experts fear that having broken up al-Qaeda cells in Europe the worst threat now comes from what they call ‘free electrons’, ie, hard-to-spot individual terrorists acting alone. And if we refer to the world in general, there can be no doubt of the differences in approach and in roots of Islamic groups fighting in Mindanao against the government of the Philippines, in Kashmir against the government of India, in Palestine against Israel and in Chechnya against Russia. The worrying fact is that all these local conflicts are flowing together into a worldwide terrorist war against all those people the Islamists regard as their enemies, be they Christians, Hindus or Jews. Seen in this light, al-Qaeda may contain more danger as a catalyst for a host of very loosely connected groups than as a specific organisation in its own right.

As far as al-Qaeda is concerned the main enemy is the United States, for reasons that blend hatred of modern lay liberal Western civilisation with envy of Washington’s dominant world role, particularly its support for Israel and its influence over the governments of Moslem countries. The problem is that Europe shares the same mode of civilisation, is a close ally of the United States, cooperated with the US in its intervention in Afghanistan last year and will cooperate again with the US next year in its intervention in Iraq, assuming the UN inspectors fail to avoid the need for it. In addition, the European Union is a more vulnerable target than America. Entry is easier by land, sea or air for possible terrorists, movement between the signatory countries of the Schengen accord is uninhibited, and the minority but highly active radical Islamic cells that have spawned in European Moslem communities in recent years, can offer logistical support and a ready supply of recruits.

The anti-terrorist experience acquired in recent years by countries such as the UK, Spain, France, Germany and Italy, and the close cooperation among the security services of these countries, offer some guarantee that the terrorists will not have it all their own way. The attacks in Indonesia and Kenya may well respond to the fact that anti-terrorist measures in both countries are not very comprehensive. As a Kenyan journalist wrote: “Bin Laden’s cowardly warriors chose the weakest target.” The repeated attacks on Israeli soil, however, show that even the tightest security system cannot make a country terrorist-proof.

In the last few weeks significant blows have been struck against the world network led by al-Qaeda. Indonesia recently announced the arrest of the suspected ringleader of the Bali attack, Imam Samudra. In Kuwait, Mohsen al-Fadhli is now behind bars, having confessed to planning the attack in October against a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen. Even more significant may have been the arrest of Abd al-Rahmin al-Nashiri, who was among the most wanted dozen or so al-Qaeda leaders and presumed to be the head of operations in the Gulf area. There are also indications that the governments of that region, notably those of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Yemen, have begun to crack down on the groups in their countries known to have links with al-Qaeda. The Algerian authorities, also, said that an Islamic militant killed in a clash with security forces in the summer had been identified as Abu Mohammed, a leading Yemeni member of al-Qaeda who was acting as adviser to radical Islamist groups in North Africa.

Major successes have occurred in Europe itself, particularly in the UK and in France. In the UK, Abu Qatada, regarded as the spiritual leader of al-Qaeda, is now under arrest, having gone to ground in December. He recently published on Internet a ‘moral’ justification for the attacks of 11 September. British security forces also arrested three North Africans accused of preparing terrorist attacks although the authorities would not confirm whether they include the individuals alleged by the British press to have been planning a gas attack in the London Underground. In France the most significant arrest may have been that of Slimane Khalfaoui, apparently linked with various key al-Qaeda figures in Europe.

These and other arrests may have forestalled some terrorist attacks but by no means do they imply that European soil is now clear of militants ready and willing to commit more. The German secret service believes it has identified al-Qaeda’s head of operations in Europe, the Jordanian Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, an expert in chemical weapons. Also of concern are indications from a number of European countries of cooperation between terrorist cells and Moslems involved in organised crime.

The video tape released on 12 November by the Al Jazeera channel appears to show that Bin Laden is still alive; the experts say that it is, indeed, his voice. On the tape the leader of al-Qaeda expresses his satisfaction at a number of attacks that took place this year, in Tunisia, Karachi, Yemen, Kuwait, Bali and Moscow, although he does not specifically claim al-Qaeda responsibility. He also threatens the allies of Washington, with specific mention of the UK, France, Italy, Canada, Germany and Australia. He speaks of the Bali attack, for example, as punishment for Australia for its part in the separation of East Timor from Indonesia and for having participated in the war in Afghanistan.

On a voice tape broadcast by Al Jazeera on 8 October, ie, before the Bali attack, another leading member of al-Qaeda, the Egyptian Al Zawahiri, also threatened the allies of the United States, speaking of attacks against economic targets. The French oil tanker attacked in October was clearly one such target, and the attack on Bali was obviously intended to damage the tourist industry, as was the more recent one in Mombassa. From an economic standpoint, the computer attacks mentioned by the fundamentalist Omar Bakri could be very destructive, although from the terrorists’ standpoint the absence of bloodshed is probably a disadvantage.

The risk for Spain
Spain is not specifically singled out in any of the recent statements by al-Qaeda leaders, but it would be naïve to think that we are not threatened. Spain is a Western country in which members of both al-Qaeda and its linked Salafist Group of Algeria have been arrested. More importantly, we should remember that the threat extends to all those whose conduct is contrary to Islam in the eyes of fanatical fundamentalists.

This is not only a matter of international politics. Bin Laden is a clear believer in the theory of the clash of civilisations. In particular, he is convinced of the incompatibility of Islam and what is in his view the corrupt and corrupting civilisation of the West. In a recently posted ‘Letter to America’ carrying his signature, Bin Laden said that American civilisation is the worst in history because instead of being ruled by God’s law, it has invented its own laws, separating politics from religion; because its economy is based on usury, with the result that it is controlled by Jews; because it tolerates drugs; because it countenances immoral acts in the name of personal liberties; because Americans practice sex in all its forms, meaning that they have spread AIDS throughout the world, etc., etc., etc.

The fact that al-Qaeda poses the conflict in terms of a clash of civilisations does not mean that the West has to do likewise. We are not facing a conflict of historic dimensions between two civilisations but a challenge to the values on which international relations are based, thrown down by a handful of religious fanatics who represent a threat, first and foremost, to other Moslems. This is something the media forget when they give excessive prominence to the ringleaders on the basis of the radical nature of their message rather than on their representative status. A good example is in the UK, where a fundamentalist preacher who settled there in 1993, the Syrian Omar Bakri, obtains massive coverage for every word he utters. Last summer he said that 11 September was in response to the evil policies of the United States and that if the British government participated in an attack on Iraq, Moslems from all over the world –though not those resident in the UK– would be justified in wreaking their vengeance.

A spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, which represents 380 Moslem organisations in the country, responded that such threats caused most damage to British Moslems and that the manifestations of hostility suffered by Moslems since 11 September were unjustified because extremists such as Bakri or Abu Hamza were not representative. Specifically, Bakri’s organisation, the Al-Muhajiroun, has less than a thousand members, out of the two million Moslems resident in the UK.


The string of attacks in different parts of the world demonstrates that 11 September was no isolated event. Equally, It is increasingly mistaken to think that the terrorism practised by Chechnyan, Palestinian or Kashmiri groups is a purely local affair. What, clearly, we are faced with is an attempt to insert into a global jihad all the conflicts involving Moslems and non-Moslems. But we should not fall into the trap of seeing this conflict as a clash of civilisations in which one sixth of the human race makes war on the rest. Groups of fanatical terrorists should not be mistaken for Moslems in general.

What needs to be done it to give maximum support to the efforts of the information services enlisted in the war against global terrorism. For Spain, which by virtue of its geographical position is a bridge between Europe and the Islamic world, the fight against al-Qaeda should not be given a low priority. The lives of Spaniards are at stake, as are our economic interests in matters as sensitive as our oil supply, our tourist earnings and the IT security of our companies.

Juan Avilés
Lecturer in Contemporary History and Director of the University Institute for Research on Home Security (IUISI)