Al-Qaeda has come to rely on the suicide attack as its major terror tactic, which is not only terrifyingly effective but also most difficult to prevent. The reason for the success of the strategy is simple: any targeted killing has traditionally been difficult to carry out due to a basic human instinct of self-preservation and any terrorist used to prefer to escape unharmed while carrying out a strike. All defensive measures against terror attacks, until recently, were developed while keeping this basic assumption in mind. The suicide bomber has made all such defensive theories irrelevant since an al-Qaeda operative on a suicide mission not only disregards his own safety; he is actually looking forward to his 'martyrdom.' (Smith, 2002)
The suicide bombings also have other inherent advantages: it is simple and inexpensive; it almost certainly guarantees mass casualties and extensive damage; there are no chances of post-attack fears of interrogation since the attacker is dead; and it has a powerful effect on the public and the media because of the horror such an attack generates (Sprinzak, 2000, p. 66). The only problem is to find people who are willing to sacrifice themselves, and due to the fanatical nature of its teachings, al-Qaeda seems to have no dearth of such people in its ranks. Apart from the suicide bombings that al-Qaeda has adopted as its major terror tactic in recent times, the organization also has a marked interest in airborne attacks. Apart from the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda has been involved in several thwarted plans involving airplanes, the most significant of which was the plan code named "Oplan Bojinka" in which 11 U.S. airliners were to be destroyed over the Pacific Ocean as they traveled from Asia back to the United States (Smith, 2002)
Another favorite tactic of al-Qaeda is to exploit porous borders to smuggle in potential terrorists as part of illegal immigrant rings. It has come to light that hundreds of illegal immigrants of Middle Eastern origin were smuggled across the U.S.-Mexican border in the late 1990s, some of whom could have been al-Qaeda linked terrorists (Dillon, 2001).
Selection of Victims and Targets
Following the 'fatwas' issued by bin Laden in the 1990s that it is quite legitimate to attack civilian targets, it has become easy for al-Qaeda operatives to 'select' targets. However, al-Qaeda has always endeavored to make spectacular terrorist attacks to gain publicity. In recent years, it has also targeted security forces in Pakistan that have been engaged in fighting the al-Qaeda and Taliban in its tribal areas. It has also reportedly been involved in assassination attempts on former Pakistani President, Pervez Musharraf, and the assassination of its former PM, Benazir Bhutto. However, due to the popularity of Ms. Bhutto in Pakistan, al-Qaeda has not publicly admitted to her assassination (Khan, 2008). The organization has also been accused of being involved in the drug trade which is flourishing in Afghanistan. However, considering the past record of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, when they had banned and controlled such trade for religious reasons, there is no conclusive proof of the accusation.
Past Terrorist Activities: Successes and Failures
Al-Qaeda has been found to be involved in a number of terrorist attacks in the past including the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993; the truck bomb explosion at Khobar Towers, Saudi Arabia in 1996 in which 19 U.S. servicemen were killed; the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in East Africa; bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in a port in Yemen, 2000; the 9/11 attacks; a spate of suicide bombings in Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Indonesia during 2002-3; the Madrid train bombings in 2004; train bombings in London on 7/7/2005; and numerous suicide attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in recent years. Several potentially devastating al-Qaeda attacks have also been thwarted including the 'Oplan Bojinka' plan in 1995 and an alleged plot hatched in London in 2006 to blow up as many as 10 planes using liquid explosives (Hayes, et. al. 2008).
Future Threat / Potential Targets
Due to the seamless and fluid nature of al-Qaeda, it is difficult to predict its potential targets and the extent of threat posed by al-Qaeda. There is no doubt that al-Qaeda has suffered major set-backs to its core organizational structure following the removal of the Taliban and the capture and/or killing of several key al-Qaeda operatives. Since then, al-Qaeda has concentrated to attacking 'softer' targets in countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. They have also re-grouped to an extent in the almost inaccessible Tribal areas on the Pakistan-Afghan border.
My Own Analysis / Opinion of the Terrorist Group
After the disruption of al-Qaeda's established headquarter and operations in Afghanistan after 9/11, the organization has served more as a symbolic source of inspiration for various Islamic terrorist splinter groups around the world rather than being involved directly in major terrorist plans. It has been alleged that al-Qaeda has established similar sanctuaries in the tribal areas of Pakistan from where it is poised to launch attacks similar to the 9/11 attacks on the Western world. This assessment seems to be exaggerated and is based on the increase in effectiveness of the attacks on NATO forces in Afghanistan in recent times and the rise in insurgency in the tribal and northern areas of Pakistan. The problem with such assessment is that several half-informed analysts in the Western world, particularly in the U.S., have tended to paint all Islamic militant groups with the same brush. Most of the people fighting the NATO troops in Afghanistan or the Pakistani security forces in its tribal areas are the Taliban (whose main aim is to oust the occupying forces from Afghanistan) and not the hard-core al-Qaeda. It is necessary to differentiate between such groups in order to bring the relatively moderate militants in the mainstream and to isolate the avowed, hard-core terrorist elements of al-Qaeda. This, of course, does not mean that al-Qaeda is no more a terrorist threat. It still has a loosely connected global network and is committed in its objectives; hence the global community cannot afford to be complacent and let its guard down.
Dixon, N. "How the CIA created Osama bin Laden." Green Left online. 19 September 2001. Retrieved on October 23, 2008 at http://www.greenleft.org.au/2001/465/25199
Dillon, S. "Iraqi Accused of Smuggling Hundreds in Mideast to U.S.," the New York Times, 26 October 200l, p. A18. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=950DE3D81031F935A15753C1A9679C8B63
The Foundation of New Terrorism." (2004) Chapter 2 of National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the 9/11 Commission). Retrieved on October 23, 2008 at http://www.9-11commission.gov/report/911Report_Ch2.htm
Hayes, L. et. al. "Al-Qaeda: Osama bin Laden's Network of Terror." Infoplease.com. n.d. Retrieved on October 23, 2008 at http://www.infoplease.com/spot/al-qaeda-terrorism.html
Jenkins, B.M. (2002). Countering Al Qaeda: An Appreciation of the Situation and Suggestions for Strategy / . Santa Monica, CA: Rand.
Khan, a. "Baitullah Mehsud: Scapegoat or Perpetrator in Benazir Bhutto's Assassination?"
Terrorism Monitor. Volume 6, Issue 5. March 7, 2008. Retrieved on October 23, 2008 at http://www.jamestown.org/terrorism/news/article.php?articleid=2374020
Piszkiewicz, D. (2003). Terrorism's War with America: A History. Westport, CT: Praeger
Smith, P.J. (2002). Transnational Terrorism and the Al Qaeda Model: Confronting New Realities. Parameters, 32(2), 33+.
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