BRUSSELS – It could be that corner shop selling beer after hours, or that bakery. It could be a kiosk offering cut-rate fees for calls to Morocco or Egypt: they could all be al-Qaeda sleeper cells, only a five-minute walk from Brussels’ Gare du Midi – the central train station. European Union terrorism analysts and Moroccan experts on Islamism agree that al-Qaeda’s operational headquarters in Europe are now located in Belgium and the Netherlands. 

According to Moroccan analyst Mohamed Darif, Moroccans are now positioned at decision-making levels in al-Qaeda cells operating in Europe, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Logistical and financial support networks for al-Qaeda in Europe now transit among the 300,000-strong Moroccan diaspora in Brussels and Amsterdam. Recruitment is on the rise – among the pious as well as among born-again Islamists, among the delinquent as well as among young immigrants who see jihad as the way to redeem themselves from their sins. At the same time, the exodus to jihad lands is also on the rise. It’s not only destination Iraq; more and more so-called “white Moors” – white Muslims carrying European Union passports – are leaving for jihad training in Chechnya.

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Both German and French secret services are now concentrating on young, EU Muslims who leave for jihad training in Iraq and come back to Europe to join or start sleeper cells. The British for their part are concentrating on individual jihad – extremely autonomous groups who either manage to contact or be contacted by an al-Qaeda operative so they can discuss targets and logistical support.

Abdallah Rami, another Moroccan expert, says there’s one thing more important than the rush towards the Iraqi training ground and its wealth of information regarding urban warfare, clandestine networks and the privatization of means of mass destruction. Even more powerful, Rami says, is the appeal of “individual jihad”: “Thanks to the Internet, an individual may become radical, acquire a terrorist education and prepare and execute an attack all by himself, without ever being in contact with al-Qaeda.” This is what self-service jihad is all about.

The moderate Sunni Arab world could not but panic. The spread of self-service jihad has led major Arab-language media like al-Hayat and Asharq al-Awsat to start debating “Islamo-fascism.” But the debate would be more profitable if it concentrated on al-Qaeda’s foreign policy. Just like Washington neo-conservatives, al-Qaeda seems to be engaged in regime change – fighting to place rulers, especially in the Arab world, who do not clash with its political ambitions, even if such leaders don’t subscribe to al-Qaeda’s worldview.

Contrary to the official line of both the George W. Bush and Tony Blair governments, it’s not hatred of Western values and freedom that drives the Salafi-jihadis. This is a fight for political power. Al-Qaeda is profiting immensely from the fact that average, moderate Muslims in the Middle East as well as in Europe have become so enraged by the excesses of the US imperial adventure in Iraq that for them the only counter-measure is to become a jihadi.

The big picture

As far as the London bombings are concerned, the al-Qaeda-Pakistani connection is now firmly established. The operation may have been planned in Pakistan in March 2004, immediately after the Madrid bombing. Muhammad Siddique Khan, the oldest of the bombers (it’s not proven they were suicide bombers; they may have been deceived) has been linked to Libyan Abu Faraj al-Libbi, a high-profile new generation al-Qaeda operative recently captured in Pakistan.

EU analysts are seriously considering what in intelligence circles is regarded as al-Qaeda’s master plan, a document called “Al-Qaeda strategy up to the year 2020,” probably written by Egyptian war strategist Muhammad Mekkawi. Mekkawi talks about the establishment of a jihadi battleground ranging from Afghanistan to Syria and Lebanon. Iraq of course is crucial in the overall strategy. Al-Qaeda wants nothing less than control of Baghdad. In the past few days, the numbers once again have proved that what happened one day in London is what reality is all about in Iraq: 17 bombings in 72 hours, more than 40 suicide bombings – and counting – in July alone, including the ghastly spectacle in Musayyib, south of Baghdad, where more than 100 people were killed and 130 injured when a suicide bomber blew up a fuel tanker near a crowded marketplace, right in front of a Shi’ite mosque.

Last week, the interior and justice ministers of the 25 EU members gathered in Brussels for an extraordinary summit on terrorism. They decided to enforce an EU-wide mandate to obtain evidence, keep individual cellphone records for one year, and improve EU-wide information exchanges between police, surveillance and justice bodies.

But the EU is still far from adopting a US-style Patriot Act. EU-based humanitarian or charity organizations are not as controlled as they are in the US.

Dutchman Gijs de Vries, in effect the EU’s Mr Counterterrorism, is worried: what has been decided has to be put in practice as soon as possible. Many of the 25 still have not approved their own anti-terrorist legislation. On the other hand, some members, like France, are toughening the police state. Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s controversial interior minister, wants to intensify the expulsion of preachers, accelerate the education of “made in France” imams, keep all video-surveillance tapes in stock and expand to the whole EU the conservation of telephone records. French jihadi candidates to Iraq recently discovered in a northern Paris neighborhood might as well relocate, probably by taking the Thalys train to Belgium or the Netherlands.

Most new-generation jihadis didn’t care about Islam before they became born-again Islamists. Most are well-educated, middle class and even married – like the London bombers. They may continue to cause terror inside Europe because of the policies of the governments there – be they Spanish, British, Italian or Danish – which they consider humiliating to Muslims, not because they have been indoctrinated by a fiery Salafi cleric in London or Paris. Al-Qaeda has never cared about Western “values” or “freedom.” One just has to listen carefully to Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri. They’ve always repeated the same themes: if you bomb our cities, we will bomb yours; if you leave our lands, stop planting corrupt leaders and stop plundering our resources, we will stop.