BRUSSELS – Is al-Qaeda really back in business? The three simultaneous bombings in three housing compounds for foreigners in Riyadh that left 29 dead, according to the Saudi Interior Ministry, as well as the nine suicide bombers, have at least shattered a sort of consensus that had been emerging among Western intelligence services.

Until the end of last week, for instance, France’s DGSE verdict was that “al-Qaeda is finished.” According to a top agent, “Big operations, prepared at least one year in advance, like September 11, are a thing of the past.” Trans-Atlantic cooperation in the war against terrorism was supposed to be the key to the victory against al-Qaeda. This is the official Bush administration position, according to which half of al-Qaeda’s leadership has been apprehended or killed (four thousand presumed al-Qaeda members have been arrested since September 11).

At least a little nuance was injected on May 5 in Paris when the Interior and Justice ministers of the G8 countries preferred to state that the menace was still there. It definitely is – from al-Qaeda’s point of view. According to the site, the new al-Qaeda “media coordinator,” Thabet ibn Qais, insists “the Americans are proceeding in the direction that we drew for them even before September 11.” Last week, the Arab magazine al-Majallah said it had received an email from Thabet ibn Qais in which he proclaimed “an attack against America was inevitable.”

Since last week, the Saudi Interior Ministry has also been hunting “Nineteen terrorists, 17 of them Saudis” who “intended to carry out acts of terrorism” – after Riyadh police apprehended lots of explosives, weapons and cash following a shootout. Some of these may have been among the suicide bombers who died in the Riyadh bombings.

Thabet ibn Qais, in his sudden emergence into the world public arena, was adamant to point out that al-Qaeda “carried out changes in its leadership and sidelined the September 11, 2001 team. Future missions have been entrusted to the new team, which is well protected against the US intelligence services. The old leadership does not know the names of any of its members.”

Al-Qaeda – and especially bin Laden – are in fact already getting what they want, irrespective of new attacks. The US government made it clear on the record on April 29 what was already no secret, and one of its key objectives after the removal of Saddam Hussein: the US is going to end all its military operations in Saudi Arabia in June, and evacuate what today amounts to 10,000 men and 200 aircraft based in al-Kharj, an operations center 50 kilometers south of Riyadh. This happens to be a key, if not the key demand, of bin Laden since the beginning of the 1990s: US troops out of the “land of the two mosques.”

But the US move also presents al-Qaeda with a huge problem: it represents the end of a key argument to legitimize the jihad against the West. So what is al-Qaeda really up to? And what is that recently neglected master of the underworld, bin Laden, doing?

Pakistani and Afghani sources once again tell Asia Times Online that bin Laden must be in the proverbial cave in Pashtun territory, which depending on the source could be anywhere in southeastern Afghanistan or the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. For Western intelligence agencies, his main priority is now pure survival – not masterminding operations. He has totally vanished from al-Jazeera, the Qatari television network to which he has in the past handed over tapes of his messages.

After painstaking research, Ghislaine Alleaume, a historian and Arabist at the prestigious CNRS, the French Center of Scientific Research, is convinced that bin Laden was killed in December 2001 after the US bombing of Tora Bora in Afghanistan. She maintains that the last authentic video of Osama bin Laden was the one broadcast on December 27, 2001 by al-Jazeera, in which he appeared tired, thin and with his left arm probably amputated.

Alleaume also points out that since January 2002, bin Laden’s texts started showing up with the signature “Osama bin Muhamad bin Laden.” Usually he signed his own name preceded by “brother,” “sheik” or “emir.” For Alleaume, “the apparition of Muhamad, the name of his father, adds an apocalyptic dimension. In the Holy Koran, it is said that Mahdi, the Messiah of the last days, will be recognized according to certain signs, including the fact that he uses the name of the Holy Prophet.”

It is not implausible that on his death bed bin Laden himself – surrounded by his closest, ardent followers – concocted an apotheosis designed to elevate him directly to Paradise. And indeed, he already lives on the Internet as one of the key myths of our time – as a saint, a Messiah, a hidden imam or as a new Che Guevara. For many, Muslims and Christians alike, he remains a symbol of anti-imperialism. For a smatter of Palestinian movements, he will be the true liberator of Jerusalem (in a manner of which the also disappeared Saddam Hussein could only dream).

But it’s hard to see this cult following transposed into action. In the beginning of April, addressing selected Islamist sites, bin Laden – the real thing or the virtual Messiah – was inciting suicide bombers to “avenge the murdered children of Iraq.” Yet there were only a few suicide bombings during the Iraqi war.

A substantial part of the legions formed in the Afghan training camps of the 1980s and 1990s has been decimated by the awesome American military machine, in close cooperation with virtually all Western security and intelligence services. Of al-Qaeda’s top 20, half have been killed or captured, including Mohamed Atef, Abu Zubaidah and Khalid Shaikh Muhamad, the real brain behind September 11.

The “old” team may have been “incapable of acting,” according to French Islamist expert Olivier Roy, because of extreme American pressure applied everywhere from Karachi to Riyadh, even during the buildup to the war against Iraqi. But as much as it’s difficult to assess the real power of this “new team” announced by Thabet ibn Qais, they may be a completely different and even harder lot.

What happens to al-Qaeda will not necessarily be linked to what happens in Iraq. The jihadis hated the extinct secular Ba’ath Party as much as they hate the Shi’ites who are now fighting to grab political power for the first time in Iraq. This means that for al-Qaeda the American occupation of Iraq – unlike their presence in Saudi Arabia – is not a sacrilege. Al-Qaeda is not in the least touched by the American project to remodel the Middle East according to its own whims. And this is the reason why bin Laden – the real thing or the virtual Messiah – fell on deaf ears when he called for a jihad in the beginning of April.

Intelligence sources in the European Union in Brussels confirm there are many ultra-radical movements, like the Hizb al-Tahrir, based in London, that preach that the West should be turned into a Caliphate, and they are now accusing bin Laden of launching his jihad against the West too early, thereby exposing all militants to relentless Western repression. As to radicals in London itself, they have been practically smashed by Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government. The same intelligence sources confirm that it took only a couple of high-profile arrests and a secret non-aggression pact. This explains why even at the height of the Iraq war, there was not a single attack or suicide bombing in London.

Diaa Rachwan, an Egyptian specialist on radical Islamists, is convinced the answer to the new riddle will be found exactly in post-war Iraq, which will congregate “a synthesis of the armed conflicts of the last 20 years”: the international jihad formerly based in Afghanistan, the suicide bombings of Palestine and the anarchy and clannish chaos of Somalia. In this nightmarish scenario, “Americans will be much more vulnerable and hostage to Islamists.”

The question still remains of where the “new team” of al-Qaeda Arabs has been trained, or had been training. As the Taliban increasingly develop their guerrilla war in the Afghan Pashtun belt, the training could have taken place in key spots in the North West Frontier Province in Pakistan, but also in the Caucasus. European intelligence is not making the mistake of believing that al-Qaeda – with no significant sleeper cells left and no more fatwas issued in Europe – is also having trouble with financing. European intelligence in Brussels is also very worried with the phenomenon of al-Qaeda “franchising” – from a cluster of Pakistani-based groups to the Jemaah Islamiya in Indonesia.

If al-Qaeda is really back, and planning to strike back with a vengeance, the bombing in Riyadh is just an appetizer. The main course might well be the G8 meeting in Evian, France, in the beginning of June. And this is what is really keeping all Western intelligence agencies on edge.

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