The killing of Osama Bin Laden by US special forces has evoked widespread relief in the democratic world, but it has also left many questions unanswered – for instance how significant a victory is Bin Laden’s death in the fight against terrorism and how strong is Al Qaeda without him. Radio Prague spoke to Czech security expert Andor Šandor to get his view on the matter.
“I think that the killing of Osama Bin Laden is important in destroying the symbol of Islamic terrorists. There is no doubt that there cannot be anyone to replace Bin Laden. We hear about Ayman al Zawahri or Anwar al Awlaki, but I don’t think these people can be a real replacement for Bin Laden. And in terms of how Al Qaeda has been hit by his death, I would say that its operational strength remains nearly untouched. Al Qaeda is not an organization that would be horizontally or vertically run by a centre, it is a loose organization –I would call it a franchise organization. These cells are rather independent and the most important role Osama Bin Laden played in Al Qaeda was that he was a good fund-raiser. His role in approving any attack was by allocating money for it and he did not interfere in any commanding or structural manner by saying which target should be chosen or anything like that.”
So he wasn’t actually behind the planning?
“To some extent he may have been –it depends on which terrorist attacks we are talking about. He was not behind all of them. In some he may have been an actor, but I would say that the most important role he played was raising funds and allocating them to specific attacks.”
So if Al Qaeda has had its financing cut off in this manner how dangerous is it today and how well-armed are they?
“You know the role of Bin Laden as a fundraiser was largely true of the late 90s and the beginning of the 21st century. In past years he was not so active and I do not believe that all Al Qaeda cells were largely dependent on his fund-raising. Not all the money they received was from Bin Laden. There were different sources, though he was the most important source. To what extent the fact that Bin Laden is now out of business will impact Al Qaeda’s activities can be partly seen from the fact that in the last five or six years Al Qaeda has not been able to carry out any “significant” attacks such as 9/11 or 7/7 in 2005 in the UK.”
So you would agree with President Obama when he says that this will make the world a safer place?
“To some extent it may. I expect some acts of revenge for the death of Bin Laden may occur in the foreseeable future –or at least attempts at revenge - in the US or in Pakistan. So there is no doubt that the blow is significant, but it does not necessarily mean that the potential of Al Qaeda has been diminished significantly. The battle is still on and we have to be careful and vigilant and try to finish the job, if it is possible.”
What would such an attack look like? There has been speculation that Islamic radicals might have a dirty bomb and even that they are trying to assemble a nuclear bomb. Do we know how well-armed they are?
“We know that Al Qaeda wanted to get a nuclear bomb, that they wanted to construct a dirty bomb. From Wiki leaks two weeks ago it emerged that if Bin Laden was killed they would detonate a nuclear bomb that is allegedly hidden somewhere in Europe. I personally do not believe they were able to get a nuclear bomb or that they have the ability to assemble one. But we must take this threat seriously. Al Qaeda always wanted to have weapons of mass destruction and I am quite sure that if they had them they would be willing to use them.”
What countries do you see as potential targets at this moment?
“The US will always be target number 1 and in the US they know that so this latest development changes nothing in their perception of the threat of terrorist attacks. As for other countries – I would definitely speak about Pakistan because by the role they played in supporting –or not supporting – American operations against terrorists on Pakistani territory their position is very difficult and there would be a number of people who would definitely be unhappy about the fact that Bin Laden was killed with some help from Pakistan. And we may expect some attacks in Western Europe. They may not necessarily happen, but if I were in charge I would be very cautious and vigilant.”
What do we know about the network of Islamic radicals in Europe – the so-called dormant cells for instance?
“It depends on the country. I would say that countries with a large Moslem minority on their territory who at the same time follow a foreign policy line such as the UK, which is the biggest ally of the US, would be potential targets. In the UK there are potentially 1500 real radicals ready to commit any attack if they decide to do so or if they have the capability to do so. A similar situation might be in Germany or in France. Countries like the Czech Republic or Slovakia do not belong to those threatened by internal terrorist attacks.”
Are Europe’s intelligence services prepared for this?
“So much has been done since 9/11 to improve security systems in various countries. That is a very positive aspect. But at the same time, in democratic countries such as you have in Europe you cannot have a system that will give you a 100 percent guarantee against terrorist attacks. Cooperation between intelligence services of different states is as important as ever and I would even say it should be enhanced because there are people out there ready to threaten us and hit us so international cooperation either on an EU platform, NATO or bilateral in character is still very important.”
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