The latest bombings in Turkey have made one thing clear: Everyday life in the Muslim world is no longer safe from al-Qaida and its allies. With militants brazenly attacking targets and civilians inside their own countries, intelligence specialists warn the spreading war on terrorism is becoming harder to fight.
While U.S.-led military action in Afghanistan helped disrupt al-Qaida, it also sent hundreds of its well-trained and deeply indoctrinated fighters fleeing back home to places from the Middle East and Asia. Now those bent on holy war have found their own followers, fresh targets and new victims in a part of the world where no one was expecting them.
As a result, intelligence agencies don't know whether recent attacks in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Indonesia, Morocco, the Philippines and now Turkey are the work of Osama bin Laden's organization or the responsibility of any number of offshoots that share a similar philosophy.
''The phenomenon we're seeing in the Muslim world today is in large part because the boys have gone home from Afghanistan,'' said Matthew Levitt, a former FBI counterterrorism analyst. He said the vast majority of recent attacks appear to be al-Qaida, ''but it could be the work of affiliated networks, people who went through the camps or like-minded travelers.''
That makes it more difficult for intelligence services, said Paul Pillar, a CIA analyst. ''It's harder to follow a bunch of different groups coming at you from different directions,'' he said, speaking Wednesday at Columbia University.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, nearly all terrorists actions attributed to al-Qaida have taken place in Muslim countries including Pakistan, Indonesia, Tunisia, Yemen, Morocco and Saudi Arabia. The exception was an attack on an Israeli charter flight and hotel in Kenya earlier this year.
And while a centralized al-Qaida largely struck at American symbols, terrorists now choose high-impact targets in their home countries, such as shopping centers, apartment complexes, restaurants, synagogues or government facilities. The result has meant high casualties among Muslim women and children. In the Nov. 13 attacks in Turkey and one a week earlier in Saudi Arabia, the overwhelming number of victims were Muslim.
Levitt said those casualties mean little for al-Qaida but could help convince the Muslim world how dangerous the organization is.
In Washington, U.S. officials said it was too early to know whether the deadly attacks this week in Turkey were the work of al-Qaida. More than two dozen people were killed in Istanbul Thursday, including the British Consul-General Roger Short, and nearly 450 people wounded when suicide bombers exploded trucks at a bank and the British consulate. Last week, twin car bombing outside two Istanbul synagogues killed 23 people plus the two bombers. Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said the two bombers had visited Afghanistan in the past.
Intelligence agencies differ about al-Qaida's capabilities two years after the United States went after the organization in Afghanistan. Pillar said the terrorist group ''may be close to collapsing.''
But August Hanning, head of Germany's Federal Intelligence Service, said in a speech Thursday in Germany that al-Qaida has ''regenerated'' although bin Laden's day-to-day role in planning attacks is hard to pin down.
''But we believe he still plays an important role in the background,'' he said. ''He communicates with his supporters through his messages. He tries to mobilize them, and of course he uses the situation in Iraq.''
Intelligence agencies also fear parts of Southeast Asia notably Indonesia and East Africa are becoming terrorist bases, Hanning said, and he expressed particular alarm about Turkey a secular Muslim country, NATO member and ally of Israel.
''These are clear signals that targets are being attacked that signal Turkey's cooperation with the West and with Israel,'' Hanning said.
Anthony Cordesman with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said targeting Turkey ''is yet another tragic demonstration of the fact that the war on terrorism is not a clash between civilizations, but rather a struggle within the Islamic world,'' between those who want a theocracy and those who would modernize.
Hanning, the German intelligence chief, noted that anti-American and anti-Western sentiment is growing in the Arab world, in part due to the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Experts say those sentiments help terrorist organizations recruit new members and raise funds. But the U.S. occupation in Iraq alone isn't what's driving the terrorists to act.
''I don't think Iraq matters,'' said Levitt. ''There's no evidence whatsoever that what happened in Turkey is tied to Iraq.''
No one expects to see an end to the violence anytime soon.
''We should make no mistake in thinking somehow that terrorism is abating,'' Attorney General John Ashcroft said Thursday.
Dafna Linzer covers terrorism for The Associated Press.
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