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New al-Qaeda phase begins
By Syed Saleem Shahzad/ASIA TIMES, HONG KONG
January 21, 2006

Sayed Saleem Shahzad, Bureau chief of Hong Kong's Asia Times, argues that "Al-Qaeda has undergone major restructuring - and soul-searching - in preparation for its relaunch as an open organization to pitch a worldwide battle against US interests. Osama bin Laden's tape shows that it is now ready."

KARACHI - The release of a new audio tape featuring al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden marks the group's announcement that the new strategy it has been developing is now very much in place.

The tape, the first from bin Laden in more than a year, was aired on Thursday by the Al-Jazeera satellite TV channel. It appeared to have been made in early December, US intelligence officials said.

In the tape, bin Laden warned that al-Qaeda was preparing terrorist attacks on the United States: "Operations are in preparation, and you will see them on your own [US] ground once the preparations are finished."

Since the ouster in 2001 of the Taliban from Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda had a strong base, and with the ongoing "war on terror", al-Qaeda has lost hundreds of operatives through killings and arrest. By the end of 2003, the organization was in the doldrums and its cadre infested with spies.

As a result, the organization as it had been run was practically dismantled. Its vertical, centralized structure was abolished and its various groups and cells - apart from a few - were abandoned and allowed to scatter. Bin Laden, in the meantime, went low-key.

The US attack on Iraq then provided al-Qaeda with a trump card as it was able to reactivate members and sympathizers in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Morocco and beyond.

In fact the success of the Iraqi resistance, in which al-Qaeda is a component, figured significantly in the thinking of al-Qaeda's leadership to relaunch the group as an open organization to pitch a worldwide battle against US interests. Serious debate on this new direction began in 2004, with two main issues prominent:

  • Should al-Qaeda drop its shadowy nature and call for a jihad in the open against the United States?
  • Should the "war" be exclusively against the US, or also against Muslim regimes sympathetic to the US?

    These issues were later linked with two conditions:
  • The acquisition of bases to launch a war in the open.
  • The reorganization of sympathizers and new recruits to launch a worldwide battle.

    At this time, al-Qaeda decided to defer its war against Muslim regimes until a clear-cut victory was gained in Iraq. Bin Laden has always resisted taking the fight to these countries.

    Throughout 2005 al-Qaeda underwent extensive changes to prepare itself for major operations.

    The new structure of al-Qaeda
    Information gathered by Asia Times Online from various sources suggests that though al-Qaeda is now working on a horizontal structure, some top-level decision-making bodies have been revived to discuss key issues and to communicate decisions to other levels. These include a religious committee and an al-Qaeda council.

    First the council addresses issues and then passes its decisions to the religious committee, which reviews the religious implications of the decisions. It then gives the final approval, or not.

    A special committee coordinates matters worldwide with other organizations, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Ansar al-Sunna and other Iraqi resistance groups.

    Al-Qaeda has now achieved many of its targets, including the acquisition of various bases in the shape of small pockets. The leadership has safe havens in areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas, including Khost-North Waziristan, South Waziristan, Kunar-Chitral and Kunar-Bajur.

    The areas in the South and North Waziristan tribal areas are the most significant as the Pakistan government has virtually lost its writ there. According to credible information, there is very little room left for Pakistani security agencies to move around beyond South Waziristan's headquarters, Wana, and North Waziristan's headquarters, Miramshah.

    Pro-Taliban militants rule the roost here, and even local journalists cannot file stories without the prior approval of these militants. Other journalists simply are not allowed into the area. As a result, very little information filters out from North and South Waziristan.

    Nonetheless, contacts in various jihadi organizations suggest that both North and South Waziristan have become hubs for all jihadi activities.

    Hundreds of youths previously belonging to such organizations as the Laskhar-i-Toiba, Jaish-i-Mohammed, Harkat-i-Jihadi-i-Islami, Harkatul Mujahideen etc, left for bases in South and North Waziristan.

    Here they receive fresh jihadi orientation, including both military and ideological training, and after a few months they are launched into Afghanistan. Their numbers run into the thousands.

    The acquisition of these bases and fresh recruits are the prime successes of al-Qaeda as it prepares to wage its new battle. Bin Laden's appearance confirms this to his followers.

    Syed Saleem Shahzad is Bureau Chief, Pakistan Asia Times Online. He can be reached at
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