Circling the Lion's Den

D-r Gunaratna: Core Al Qaeda strength is under 500

Rohan Gunaratna is the worlds foremost expert on Islamist terrorism. The Sri Lankan native has interviewed more than 200 Al Qaeda members and has written six books on armed conflict. From 2000 to 2001 he served as principal investigator for the United Nations Terrorism Prevention Branch. He is author of best-seller Inside Al Qaeda (Columbia University). D-r Gunaranta is currently at the Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies / IDSS / in Singapore where he is Director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. He comments Andrei Soldatov last changes in Al Qaeda tactics and structure. This interview has been done within the limits of cooperation IDSS and Agentura Studies and Research Centre /ASRC /.

- As I understand Al-Qaeda "classic" structure and tactics have been destroed after cuptures of Ramzi Binalshibh and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Operative staff in the time of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was likely to organize very complex attacks like 9/11 and other, but not now. After Madrid we see terrorist attacks only in Middle East, not in Europe and US. What is the reason?

- Very difficult to attack US and Europe due to the security measures. However, with time Al Qaeda and its associated groups will attack the west. 

- Who is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed successor?

- Saif Al Adel - he is in Iran.

- Can you estimate the Al-Qaeda members number? 

- Core Al Qaeda strength is under 500. AQ associate membership is several tens of thousands.

- In October 2004 French counterintelligence DST published report about Al-Qaeda structure - Ben-Laden, 5 co-founders, shura, 8 committees and some independent terrorist organisations. What do you think about this sheme?


- What do you think how Al-Qaeda was changed principally from 2001 to 2005?

- The international terrorism landscape has changed dramatically during the past three years. First, Al Qaeda has transformed from a group into a movement; second, the epicentre of international terrorism has shifted to Iraq; third, the threat of chemical and biological terrorism has increased significantly. 

The most profound of these three developments is the morphing of Al Qaeda from a group into a movement. With the dispersal of Al Qaeda from Afghanistan to lawless zones in the global south, three dozen Asian, African, Middle Eastern and other local jihad groups are increasingly behaving like Al Qaeda. About 20,000 members of these groups trained, armed, financed and ideologized by Al Qaeda in Afghanistan from Soviet withdrawal in February 1989 until US intervention in October 2001 are begining to share Al Qaeda's vision and mission of a global jihad. Compared to most other jihad groups that traditionally attacked local targets, Al Qaeda attacked targets of the US, the "distant enemy." Al Qaeda's message to its associated groups was to attack both the "nearby enemy" as well as the "distant enemy" - the US and its Allies . 


The initial evidence of this transformation comes by examining the tactics used and the targets selected by the local groups.

- Can you give any examples?

- For instance, Jemaah Islamiyah, a group aiming to establish an Islamic state in Southeast Asia, never attacked Western targets before 9/11. However, after 9/11, the group conducted coordinated simultaneous suicide attacks against night clubs in Bali (October 2002), the J. W. Marriott Hotel in Jakarta (August 2003) and the Australian Embassy in Indonesia (September 2004) killing over 220 people. Similarly, another local jihad group, the Morroccan Islamic Combatant Group conducted coordinated simultaneous suicide attacks against a hotel frequented by Israelis, a Jewish cemetery, a Spanish cultural centre, and a Jewish owned Italian resturant killing 42 in May 2003. Another associated group of Al Qaeda, Laskar-e-Toiba, that usually operates against Indian targets, mounted an operation to target Australian interests in Sydney in 2004. The operation, disrupted, aimed to destroy high profile multiple targets, a classic Al Qaeda modus operandi. 

The full implications of the transformation of Al Qaeda from a group into a movement has not been adequately assessed either by the security and intelligence community or the academic community working on terrorism. While the threat posed by Al Qaeda is known and manageable, the multiple threats posed by its associated groups has not been fully studied and assessed. Even within the US intelligence community, the largest counter terrorism intelligence community in the world, there are very few specialists who know the associated groups of Al Qaeda. 

In the future,  Al Qaeda, the most hunted terrorist group in our history, will pose a lesser threat compared to its associated groups. Among such groups, Abu Musab Al Zarkawi's Tawhid Wal Jihad (renamed the Al Qaeda of the Two Rivers), with a fledgling network in the Middle East and the West, already presents a much bigger threat to the US, to its Allies and friends. In place of one Al Qaeda, the core group led by Osama bin Laden, we are now confronted by many Al Qaedas. Al Qaeda's biggest success has been its ability and willingness to inspire and instigate a global family of jihad groups. Al Qaeda achieved this singular success by attacking America's Iconic landmarks on 9-11 and its frequently repeated message of the need to wage global jihad is reinforced by the protracted conflict in Iraq. 

- You opinion about al Zarkavi and ben Laden relations?

- Zarkawi is the new Bin Laden. Zarkawi wanbts to be what Bin Ladenb was in Iraq.

- Who can be contender of Ben Laden inside organisation? Or it's impossible? 

- Ayman Al Zawahiri is the successor not contender.

- Can you estimate Al-Qaeda role in modern Afghanistan?

- Most Active grou in Afghanistan is Taliban and HezbeIslami not Al Qaeda.

- What do you think about presence of Al-Qaeda in Chechnya? Last time Russian authorities love this suject very much, but do you know real facts
about it?

- Al Qaeda has infiltrated Chechnya. Mass fatality large scale attacks (BESLAN, MOSCOW THEATRE,m MId Air bombing of planes) are Al Qaeda style 

- What about Europe? As I understand, before 9/11 Germany was the main basis for Al-Qaeda operations around the world, what about year 2005?

- They are quite significant in Europe, and they will attack again.

- What do you think where is ben Laden now?

- I think, Afghanistan-Pakistan border