(CNSNews.com) – Despite counter-terrorism successes and the absence of a major and dramatic attack in the West, the security threat posed by radical Islamists remains real and dynamic, as al-Qaeda mutates into an increasingly unstructured but no less dangerous entity, according to experts monitoring the organization.
As Americans and others around the world mark the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders continue to elude security forces and intelligence services.
But the threat facing the U.S. and its allies goes far beyond the Saudi fugitive and his coterie, to extremists embracing al-Qaeda’s ideology but largely operationally independent, a situation that complicates efforts to anticipate and disrupt plots.
Over the year since the last 9/11 anniversary, such terrorists have killed hundreds of people in attacks including those targeting the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, India’s commercial capital, Mumbai, and luxury hotels in Jakarta.
“Today, the primary terrorist threat to our country’s interests – persons aligned with al-Qaeda – has evolved from different but related groups into a more coherent movement under a common ideology,” Defense Intelligence Agency director Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess said Thursday.
“Top leaders simply announce their priorities, which the group’s members and allies may interpret and execute against targets of their own choice,” he said in an address at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Burgess said these methods enable “a span of terrorist violence across the world that is unprecedented in its unity of vision, regardless of the degree to which the overall command and control is splintered.”
“Hundreds of attacks every year are committed by militants sanctioned by or under the name of al-Qaeda,” he said.
Indian-based security analyst Bahukutumbi Raman says that al-Qaeda may not have succeeded in carrying out another 9/11-type attack in the U.S., “but its record in terms of terrorist strikes right across the world organized, guided or inspired by it has been impressive.”
Tracking shifts in the terror network’s strategies and operations, Raman pointed to what he described as innovations seen over the past year, including the sea-launched commando-style attacks on multiple targets in Mumbai last November; the bombing of a Jakarta hotel in July by a terrorist who posed as a guest and checked into a room; and the attempted assassination of a Saudi prince and deputy minister last month by a terrorist posing as a surrendering militant – and who reportedly wore not a customary suicide vest but explosives hidden in his underwear.
Raman, a former counterterrorism official and director of the Institute For Topical Studies in Chennai, India, said the jihadists’ main targets remained the U.S. and Israel, but he noted changes in “subsidiary national targets” in line with shifting events.
In Europe, Spain and Italy were targets early on because of their involvement in the Iraq war but with the focus moving back to Afghanistan countries more heavily involved there were getting more attention.
India and Pakistan had also become much bigger targets in the post-2003 period, he said.
“Saudi Arabia’s importance in the eyes of al-Qaeda remains undiminished – not only because the holy places of Islam are located there, but also because its oil wealth could be used to economically damage the West.”
Raman argued that while the terrorists viewed their battle against the U.S. as taking place on many fronts, including Somalia and Iraq, they believed “the ultimate defeat or victory will come in the battlefields of the Af-Pak region.”
Other regions that have raised growing concern over the past year include Yemen and North and East Africa, where groups identifying themselves as al-Qaeda affiliates have been active.
In Yemen, terrorists mounted an audacious attack on the U.S. Embassy last September, using automatic weapons, hand grenades and a car bomb, and killing 18 people, including an American citizen.
Claims of responsibility came both from a group calling itself Islamic Jihad in Yemen, believed to be affiliated to al-Qaeda.
A suicide bombing in Yemen last March killed four South Korean tourists, and followed calls by terrorist leaders for non-Muslims in the Arabian peninsula to be attacked.
In North Africa, the al-Qaeda franchise calling itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) continues to target foreigners and security force members, most recently in two deadly ambushes that killed more than 30 Algerian troops in June and July.
Militants with links to AQIM have been arrested in several European countries, raising concerns that the group may be gearing up for attacks on the continent.
Meanwhile, recruitment of radical Muslims into al-Qaeda affiliated groups continues.
A report by the United Nations’ al-Qaeda and Taliban Monitoring Team earlier this year that despite its degradation, al-Qaeda continued to attract new recruits.
Britain, with a large Muslim community with strong roots in South Asia, has been especially affected by the recruitment efforts.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown said during a visit to Islamabad last December that there were around 30 major terrorism investigations underway in Britain, with about 2,000 suspects – and that “three-quarters of the most serious terrorist plots investigated by the British authorities have links to al-Qaeda in Pakistan.”
In his speech Thursday, DIA director Burgess referred to the recruitment of American Muslims as a fresh challenge posed by an adapting adversary.
“U.S. citizens are traveling abroad to fight with al-Qaeda and its allies,” in Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, he said.