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Iraq war boosted alqaeda { May 20 2003 }

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May. 20, 2003. 06:16 AM
Iraq war helped boost Al Qaeda
Allowed network to recruit: Experts
Saudi envoy warns of more attacks

LONDON - The U.S.-led war on Iraq gave Al Qaeda the opportunity to reinvigorate its weakened terrorist network with new recruits and more funding, say experts on terrorism.

The Iraq war "clearly increased the terrorist impulse," said Jonathan Stevenson, senior fellow for counter-terrorism at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The U.S.-led invasion, at least in the short term, drew more people toward Osama bin Laden's vision of a global clash between Islam and the West, Stevenson said yesterday.

It partly explains the series of co-ordinated, multiple attacks last Tuesday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where 34 people died, and on Friday in Casablanca, Morocco, where 41 people, including 13 attackers, were killed by five bomb blasts.

Stevenson believes U.S. President George W. Bush's administration knew full well the war would initially increase support for Al Qaeda. But U.S. officials estimated the long-term impact of setting up a democratic government in Iraq would outweigh the short-term pain of more terror attacks, he said.

Other experts, however, believe that the U.S., and those European countries that supported the war, badly miscalculated.

"The political masters in the U.S. and Europe underestimated the extent to which bin Laden would use the war in Iraq as a propaganda weapon to rejuvenate the movement and attract more funds," said Paul Wilkinson, head of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrew's University in Scotland.

"As far as the war against Al Qaeda goes, it possibly has been counterproductive. We face turbulent times ahead," Wilkinson told Sky TV.

U.S. officials partly tried to justify the Iraq war by insisting there were links between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's ousted regime an assertion most experts continue to believe is unsubstantiated.

By linking the Iraq war with the war on terror, Bush has left himself vulnerable to Americans concluding the invasion was a failure if terrorist attacks continue, said Andrew Garfield, director of the International Centre for Security Analysis at King's College in London.

Garfield believes Al Qaeda continues to plan "something big" in the way of an attack in Europe or North America. But police crackdowns and increased security co-operation across borders have foiled attempts to carry out such plans since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, told reporters in Riyadh yesterday: "There is chatter, a high level of chatter regionally and in other international spots" that something could happen in Saudi Arabia or the United States.

Al Qaeda was always a loose collection of local terrorist groups. But the loss of its training camps and bases in Afghanistan after the U.S.-led war there, as well as the arrests of several top lieutenants, have forced the terrorist network to become even more decentralized, Stevenson said in an interview.

"So while the Al Qaeda leadership has been weakened, the network as a whole has become more elusive than before," he said, adding that responsibility for planning and carrying out attacks rests more than ever with local groups.

Prevented from attacking Western countries, Al Qaeda- linked groups are turning their attention on "soft" targets in countries where they have some popular support, and where security is weak, such as Saudi Arabia and Morocco.

But Morocco said yesterday no connection had yet been established between Al Qaeda and last week's Casablanca attacks.

Stevenson believes Al Qaeda-linked groups will further focus future operations in the Persian Gulf region because of the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq.

And Garfield argued the more "preventive wars" the U.S. launches, the more Muslims will feel Al Qaeda is the only choice.

Garfield said this strategy has been used successfully by groups such as Hamas during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The more Israel fights against Hamas suicide bombers by clamping down on the occupied Palestinian territories, the more ordinary Palestinians believe violence is the only alternative.

That means the U.S. must seriously work to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which fuels Arab anger throughout the Middle East and help alleviate poverty, he said.

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