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Report: Al-Qaida multifaceted

| Sunday, July 27, 2003

WASHINGTON -- The al-Qaida of today is not solely a top-down network, in which potential terrorists report up through the hierarchy and, ultimately, to Osama bin Laden.

Instead, it is like a Hydra, the mythological serpent with many heads: operatives directed from the top; religiously motivated guerrillas with aspirations of autonomy; minor-leaguers with deadly intentions, such as would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid.

The al-Qaida described by the congressional inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks is one of a large, disjointed movement with many resources available around the world.

The report released Thursday contained a detailed analysis of al-Qaida and its capabilities.

Bin Laden's network mounts operations in at least four ways, the report says:

  • Implementing a "top-down approach" using skilled operatives, as in the Sept. 11 attacks.

  • Training "amateurs" like Reid, for relatively unsophisticated strikes.

  • Providing direct support for local followers.

  • Providing long-term support for guerrilla groups.

    "Its organizational and command structures, which employ many activists who are not formal members of the organization, make it difficult to determine where al-Qaida ends and other radical groups begin," the report says.

    Since the report was finished seven months ago, counterterrorism officials say bin Laden's network has been dismantled to a significant degree. But they acknowledge it remains capable of doing harm.

    Since the Sept. 11 attacks, much of the group's leadership has turned up in either Iran or Pakistan. Only bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, are thought to remain in the wilderness between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    Many of those in Pakistan have been detained, including alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. The status of the group in Iran -- which includes Saif al-Adil, probably the No. 3 man left at large in the network -- is unclear. The Iranians say they have detained some of them.

    Suicide bombings in May in Saudi Arabia and Morocco are demonstrative of the kind of operations al-Qaida may be turning to.

    Al-Qaida's size is difficult to pin down.

    "Although the number of highly skilled and dedicated persons who have sworn fealty to bin Laden was probably in the low hundreds before Sept. 11, the organization as a whole is much larger, with tens of thousands having gone through the training camps in Afghanistan," the report says.

    Some of its supporters are in the United States, the report says. The congressional inquiry concluded that the Sept. 11 hijackers made use of a support network already in the country.

    Only after Sept. 11 did the U.S. government make a determined attempt to dry up al-Qaida's financial sources, the report says.

    "Bin Laden and al-Qaida financial assets and networks are substantial, diverse and elusive," the report says. "Bin Laden has claimed that he has access to four ways of transferring money: smuggling cash, the global banking system, the Islamic banking system, and hawalas or informal money transfer networks.

    But al-Qaida also has suffered major blows. Its training camps in Afghanistan have been bombed. Many of its senior cadre of lieutenants have been detained.

    The arrest of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed still is being felt by the organization, counterterrorism officials say. New information has tied him to attacks from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, to the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa, and even a post-Sept. 11 strike in Tunisia.

    The group's interest in using unconventional weapons has not waned, officials say. Members of the group have experimented with poisons and radiological weapons.

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