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Was it al-Qaeda?

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
Updated: August 21, 2006

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As British officials press on with their investigation into a plot to down as many as ten airplanes simultaneously over the Atlantic Ocean, many fingers have pointed to the al-Qaeda network as the likely culprit. U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told a press conference the plan "has the hallmarks of an al-Qaeda-type plot." President Bush, on the other hand, avoided naming any specific terrorist group, calling the conspirators "Islamic fascists." There are apparent connections between the Britons alleged to have planned the attacks (WashPost) and co-conspirators in Pakistan, though direct links to the most senior al-Qaeda leadership are not apparent. A Pakistani official told the New York Times an Afghanistan-based al-Qaeda leader was the mastermind, but "it is not Osama bin Laden and it's not Ayman al-Zawahiri." Pakistan has in its custody Rashid Rauf, a British citizen who many believe was the ringleader of the plot. They say he has provided "many clues" that link al-Qaeda to the foiled attack (Guardian), though this evidence is suspect, as human rights groups allege he was tortured.

Some terrorism analysts, including Bill Roggio of the Counterterrorism Blog, point to Matiur Rehman as the likeliest link to al-Qaeda's leaders. Rehman, who was profiled by ABC News on August 9, is believed to maintain the "Rolodex of Jihad," a list of the names of all the people who have been trained in al-Qaeda camps. Experts say al-Qaeda's top officials, specifically Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden, were likely not involved with the plot because U.S. efforts to apprehend them have limited their ability to oversee operations. Henry Crumpton, the U.S. State Department coordinator for counterterrorism, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in June there is evidence the two "are frustrated by their lack of direct control" (PDF).

Yet the question of direct ties to al-Qaeda may be beside the point. Since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan severely limited the group's traditional operational capacity, al-Qaeda's leaders have often sought to inspire acts of terrorism rather than plan them. Bronwen Maddox, foreign editor of the Times of London, says such a strategy suggests the group's impotence, rather than strength. Steven Simon, former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council and a CFR senior fellow, says one theory about al-Qaeda holds the group will not stage an attack unless it is big. "It is not as though they have disappeared," he told CFR.org, "it is really rather that they [are] hunkered down waiting to be able to pull off the next big one." In the CFR.org Capital Interview, U.S. Counterterrorism Coordinator Henry A. Crumpton says that when ranking terrorist concerns, "al-Qaeda is still at the top."

The money trail, which seems to lead to Pakistan, has become an important element of the investigation. The New York Times reports a Pakistani charity may have diverted funds for earthquake victims to the conspirators behind the airliner scheme. Terrorism expert Evan Kohlmann cautions Pakistan to "take care that a humanitarian disaster like October's earthquake does not lead to a manmade disaster fomented by religious fanatics."

Daniel Benjamin, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, writes this latest plot certainly matches al-Qaeda's methodology, and evokes an earlier botched attack in 1995 (Slate). There are also similarities to the bombings on London's mass transit system last summer, specifically a reliance on homegrown terrorists (SFChron). In a new podcast, CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Flynn says the United States has yet to come to terms with the homegrown threat.

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