The appearance, last week, of a videotape featuring one of the British born, Islamic suicide bombers who struck in London on July 7, and the al Qaeda mastermind Ayman al Zawahiri, made it clear that there was an al Qaeda connection to this attack. The tape was made when one of the British bombers was recently in Pakistan, where his parents were born, and where many British born Moslems get interested in Islamic radicalism. The terrorist recruits tend to keep their new interests from their parents. The kids know their parents oppose Islamic terrorism. But, as with terrorists from earlier generations, the young can easily be made slaves of fashion. What is remarkable about the tape, first shown by satellite news network al Jazeera last week, is how it confirmed al Qaeda participation in the planning and execution of the July 7th London terror attacks. Previously, it had been believed that the July 7 terrorists were local lads who were simply inspired by al Qaeda activities.
Based on the number and frequency of terrorist attacks, al Qaeda is not a particularly effective organization. For example, in the last twelve years, these are the only attacks al Qaeda have been able to launch against the United States.
First New York World Trade Center attack 1993.
Dhahran, Saudi Arabia Khobar Towers Military complex 1996.
Nairobi, Kenya/Dar es Salaam, Tanzania US Embassy 1998.
Aden, Yemen USS Cole 2000.
New York World Trade Center/Pentagon 2001.
Add to that the two attacks in Europe, Spain in 2004 and Britain in 2005.
Through the 1990s, there were 500-1,000 terrorist attacks worldwide each year.
The al Qaeda attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan have been more military operations than terrorism, and have been made in cooperation with local opposition groups (Sunni Arab nationalists in Iraq, Taliban in Afghanistan.) A lot of what is reported as terrorism is simply local groups fighting it out with the local government. This accounts for the Islamic terrorist attacks in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Algeria and so on.
But there is ample evidence that the al Qaeda high command, especially Ayman al Zawahiri, the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood leader who fled to Afghanistan with al Qaeda in the 1990s, survives and continues to operate. It was al Zawahiri, more than bin Laden, who turned al Qaeda into an effective terrorist organization. But not too effective an organization. Al Qaeda leaders like bin Laden and al Zawahiri still survive among the many Islamic conservatives in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Survive, but can't do much beyond providing encouragement, advice and some money to true believers.
What scares counter-terrorist experts is what secret al Qaeda operations are under way. The big fear is that al Qaeda has obtained nuclear or chemical weapons, and is working on how to deliver them to Western targets. But all the available evidence is that the senior al Qaeda leaders spend most of their time avoiding capture, and much of the remainder creating media events, in the form of audio and video recordings, to inspire the troops. It's embarrassing, for the major intelligence agencies of the West, to be unable to find, and destroy, the surviving parts of al Qaeda. But, at the same time, all indications are that al Qaeda is more surviving than thriving. It exists more of an idea and hot media story. When a terrorist organization gets to the point where most of its activity is devoted to avoiding capture, and creating press releases, it's lethality is much diminished.