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Al-Qaeda ‘may have 18,000 operatives’

by Mark Huband and David Buchan in Lon­don
Finan­cial Times

The al-Qae­da ter­ror­ist net­work is a “viable and effec­tive” organ­i­sa­tion that may be able to call on as many as 18,000 poten­tial oper­a­tives world­wide, a UK think-tank said on Tues­day.

In its annu­al strate­gic sur­vey, the Inter­na­tion­al Insti­tute for Strate­gic Stud­ies (IISS) says al-Qaeda’s finan­cial net­work has sur­vived large­ly intact, and that the war in Iraq has brought new recruits to its ranks.

The net­work’s “mid­dle man­agers” pro­vide exper­tise to Islam­ic mil­i­tants world­wide, the IISS adds, warn­ing that al-Qae­da can be expect­ed to plan fur­ther attacks in North Amer­i­ca and Europe, and has the inten­tion of using weapons of mass destruc­tion. Bas­ing its assess­ment on intel­li­gence reports, the IIS­S’s fig­ure of 18,000 poten­tial oper­a­tives is cal­cu­lat­ed by deduct­ing the 2,000 sus­pects killed or cap­tured since the Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001 attacks from the esti­mat­ed 20,000 recruits thought to have passed through al-Qae­da train­ing camps in Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001.

The IISS esti­mates that around 1,000 for­eign Islamists are in Iraq and have estab­lished links with for­mer mem­bers of the oust­ed Ba’athist regime to fight the US-led coali­tion.

The report says al-Qae­da is thought be pro­vid­ing plan­ning, logis­ti­cal advice, mate­r­i­al and financ­ing to small­er groups in Sau­di Ara­bia and Moroc­co, and prob­a­bly Indone­sia and Kenya.

IISS inter­prets the Madrid train bomb­ings as evi­dence that al-Qae­da has “ful­ly recon­sti­tut­ed, set its sights firm­ly on the US and its clos­est West­ern allies in Europe, and estab­lished a new and effec­tive modus operan­di”.

The report goes on to say that Amer­i­ca’s glob­al image has “hit rock bot­tom” since its inter­ven­tion in Iraq, and can only be sal­vaged with “an effi­cient­ly exe­cut­ed plan for the full han­dover of sov­er­eign­ty” to an Iraqi gov­ern­ment.

The US was hav­ing to realise “the awful truth that the first law of peace­keep­ing is the same as the first law of foren­sics: ‘every con­tact leaves a trace’ ”, John Chip­man, IISS direc­tor, said on Tues­day. “Unfor­tu­nate­ly, too many bad traces have been left recent­ly, and many good ones will be need­ed for the US to recov­er its rep­u­ta­tion, its pres­tige and there­fore effec­tive pow­er.”

The report says the main prob­lem fac­ing Iraq’s forth­com­ing inter­im gov­ern­ment is the pro­lif­er­a­tion of armed Iraqi mili­tia groups. While these pri­vate armies may not be that strong or pop­u­lar among Iraqis, the US-led forces can­not crush them, and these mili­tias are like­ly to “devel­op increas­ing influ­ence on, and a poten­tial veto over any deci­sions made by a tran­si­tion­al gov­ern­ment that threat­ens their inter­ests”, Mr Chip­man said.