Qualifying Al-Qa’eda


In light of the timing and the similarity in targets and method, the suicide attacks in Riyadh and Casablanca, which left dozens dead and hundreds wounded, seemed to be the work of one organisation. In the aftermath of the attacks, the world was once more ablaze with talk of Al-Qa’eda, thought to be responsible for planning and carrying out the attacks. In the midst of the global panic — heightened by the scope of the attacks, the number of participants, and the great many victims — several questions were raised, and answers provided, about the nature of the attacks and their significance for the near future.

The primary question is whether or not Al- Qa’eda was responsible for planning and carrying out both attacks. Many think this likely, considering the similarities between the two series of attacks.

First of all, both attacks were suicide missions, and in both a large number of operatives participated — 15 in Riyadh and 14 in Casablanca. Secondly, in both, a series of simultaneous, or almost simultaneous explosions took place within a limited geographical area. Third, both attacks were directed at essentially Western targets, although other local, civilian targets were hit as well due to their proximity. Fourth, both sets of attacks employed a similar modus operandi, in which firearms were used to clear the way for vehicles or individuals booby-trapped with explosives, who then blew themselves up in the intended targets. Fifth, the explosions in both Casablanca and Riyadh left in their wake a large number of victims, with dozens dead and hundreds more injured. Sixth, both the attacks took place within a matter of days in two widely separated Arab cities.

Despite these similarities, they are not enough to conclude with any certainty that one party was behind both sets of operations. There are a number of other factors that must also be considered when trying to understand the dimensions of the attacks. Al-Qa’eda has assumed the status of a ghostly spectre, casting its shadow over the global media and security services, which believe that any attacks of this nature are inevitably its handiwork. The media and security services picture Al- Qa’eda as a global organisation with cells in every nation that act on orders issued from its leadership under the control of Saudi dissident Osama Bin Laden. More precisely, however, Al-Qa’eda is a loose, wide-ranging organisational framework containing two distinct levels. The first is Qa’edat Al-Jihad, the organisation that first revealed its name in April 2002 and seems to have been established to replace the Global Islamic Front for the Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders, which itself was formed in 1998 and is most likely the party responsible for bombing the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August of that year. There are several indications that the Front, or its new incarnation, possesses a hierarchical internal structure, a unified intellectual and operative leadership, a theoretical framework, and clear operating strategies. Its membership appears to be centered in Afghanistan, Pakistan, parts of Central Asia, India, the Arabian Peninsula, and East Africa.

The second level of Al-Qa’eda is what we might term “the Qa’eda network”, an extremely wide-ranging network of organisations and individuals belonging to the Jihad movement or Islamist movements more generally — which have been subject to threats almost everywhere in the world since the US announced its still undefined “war on terror”. The way in which Washington declared its war on terror — making it seem very much like a war on Islam or the Islamic world — combined with the campaign against Iraq and Israeli outrages against Palestinians, have come together to incite a number of these Islamist groups and individuals in different areas of the world against US and Israeli policy. As a result, sections of these groups have targeted American and Israeli interests around the world, using all the means at their disposal. This does not mean, however, that they are necessarily linked to Qa’edat Al-Jihad, except insofar as all these organisations have a common enemy and agree on the use of violence. Yet, any offensives launched by these individuals and groups against US targets will inevitably feed into the war led by Qa’edat Al-Jihad, which may have informally adopted some of these other organisations, though there may be no hard evidence to prove it. As a result, the US has expanded its definition of Al-Qa’eda to include a variety of diverse organisations and individuals without offering any real evidence of the link between them.

Keeping in mind this distinction, it is likely that the attacks in Riyadh were carried out by Qa’edat Al-Jihad, an opinion advanced without hesitation by American and Saudi security officials and politicians soon after the attacks. This sort of certainty has thus far not been matched by any foreign or Moroccan official in regard to the Casablanca bombings. Qa’edat Al-Jihad’s responsibility for the Riyadh bombings is highly likely, however, considering that they took place inside the organisation’s traditional sphere of influence. Moreover, about a week before the attacks, Saudi officials announced that they had confiscated explosives, weapons, and ammunition belonging to nine Qa’eda members who fled somewhere in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, an announcement claiming responsibility for the attacks in the name of Qa’edat Al-Jihad has been posted on extremist Islamist Web sites.

As for Casablanca, however, it is more likely that the operation was carried out by a local Moroccan Islamist group, which could be considered part of the Qa’eda network according to the definition above. That is, like Al-Qa’eda, it believes in targeting Western interests and the use of violence, but there may be no direct link between the two organisations.

This conclusion is supported by the fact that all the suicide bombers were Moroccan citizens who belonged to an extremist group known as the Straight Path. This is an important point, in that it indicates that there was no direct involvement of Qa’edat Al- Jihad. Last year, the Moroccan authorities arrested three Saudi nationals belonging to Al-Qa’eda who had gone to Morocco to launch an operation against a ship in the Gibraltar Straits; they were convicted two months ago. This means that Al-Qa’eda was obliged to send its own operatives to Morocco because it had no organisational contacts with local groups who might carry out the attack.

Considering information released so far on the type of explosives used in Casablanca, we can further discount any Al-Qa’eda involvement. The explosives were made locally, a primitive type that is easy and inexpensive to obtain and use.

Despite the forgoing, the similarities between the attacks in Riyadh and Casablanca require further explanation. The closeness in timing between the two may be explained by the general atmosphere prevalent in the Arab and Islamic worlds over the last three months. The Anglo-American attack on Iraq, and Iraq’s subsequent occupation, is the central event that might have engendered the attacks. Experts know very well that such great events often cause shocks or disturbances in the societies surrounding the centre of the action, though the form the shock takes varies with historical circumstances. Perhaps the occupation of Iraq will set off a wave of diverse terrorist attacks, perpetrated by extremist Islamist organisations.

That both sets of attacks targeted Western interests along with local, civil targets only confirms the impact of the regional and global situation on extremist Islamist groups. It also shows how Islamist extremism has joined Qa’edat Al-Jihad in its turn towards the “foreign enemy” forgoing for the moment the local ruling regime.

It is clear in both Riyadh and Casablanca that the strikes against local targets was only incidental, a result of their proximity to the main Western targets. If they intended otherwise, the operatives would have struck directly at local government interests, which are many and not difficult to reach by the same means. The common element in both attacks was the targeting of American interests.

That the attacks in Casablanca targeted Spanish interests as well also demonstrates the importance of putting the operation in the context of the occupation of Iraq: Spain was one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the war.

The rest of the technical similarities between the two sets of bombings can be explained as the transfer of military and technical experience among extremist Islamist organisations, whether through emulation or the many open resources found on the Internet. In this context, it is possible that certain organisational or planning elements of the Casablanca attacks were transferred by a few individuals, Moroccan or foreign, that have some relation to Qa’edat Al-Jihad.

At the same time, it is just as likely that there was no Al-Qa’eda involvement at all, either in the choice of targets, in the preparation and implementation of the attack, in financing, or in the choice of the operatives. All the operatives were members of a local organisation that simply sought to follow the example set by Qa’edat Al-Jihad in other parts of the world. Al-Qa’eda has succeeded in carrying out sizable operations in tight security circumstances, thus encouraging a number of other Islamist groups and individuals — part of the loose Qa’eda network — to target Western interests, and US interests in particular, across the globe in places in which there may be no formal Qa’eda presence at all.

The writer is an expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and managing editor of the annual State of Religion in Egypt Report.