Cracking al Qaeda's code
Last December, Brynjar Lia, an analyst at the private Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, came across a 42-page document in Arabic on the Global Islamic Media Web site, one of many Islamist sites that he routinely surveys for his research on terrorism. Entitled "Jihadi Iraq: Hopes and Dangers" and produced by someone claiming to be part of the Mujahideen Services Center, the document outlined a strategy for breaking up the U.S.-led coalition by directing "painful strikes" at America's allies, particularly Spain.
Although impressed by its sophisticated analysis of Spain's domestic politics, Lia concluded that the paper's focus on jihadist activities inside Iraq, where foreign fighters were already attacking coalition partners, would come as little news to the larger intelligence community. "I mentioned it to my wife," Lia recalls, "but only to her."
After the Madrid bombings on March 11, however, Lia recalled other salient aspects of "Jihadi Iraq" that he had earlier skimmed over. He and a colleague, Thomas Hegghammer, returned to the document and this time came to a startling conclusion. In both style and substance, the article seemed to bear the markings of an authoritative statement of al Qaeda strategy. Announcing their findings to the Norwegian media, Lia and Hegghammer also posted an overview of their analysis on their institute's Web site on March 19. Since then, the Norwegians have been fielding queries from various intelligence agencies (they won't say which) while scholars and counterterrorism experts have weighed in on the article's significance.
Difficult. But why didn't Lia grasp the document's apparent importance immediately? His initial hesitation underscores the difficulties intelligence analysts face in monitoring a foe whose tactics constantly evolve within an ideological framework that is itself strategically flexible. Those problems are compounded by the chaotic nature of the Internet, which has become one of the jihadists' preferred means of communication. "There are literally hundreds of Islamist Web sites and, at times, up to 50 different addresses related to al Qaeda alone," says Gabriel Weimann, a fellow at the United States Institute of Peace who has been tracking Internet sites for seven years in his work on terrorism and the mass media. "The great challenge is telling who is authentic and who should be analyzed."
What struck the Norwegians most on their second reading of the document was that the author of "Jihadi Iraq" seemed to be suggesting that attacks might be necessary beyond Iraq. In fact, the anonymous writer laments "the lack of direct influence of Iraq events on life in Spain," broadly implying that the "painful strikes" should hit closer to home. He also emphasizes that the strikes should take place around the time of the elections. "We think that the Spanish government could not tolerate more than two, maximum three, blows after which it will have to withdraw as a result of popular pressure," he continues. "If its troops still remain in Iraq after these blows, then the victory of the Socialist Party is almost secured, and the withdrawal of the Spanish forces will be on its electoral program." Indeed, after the March attacks, the Spanish voted in the Socialists, who began withdrawing Spain's 1,300 troops from Iraq last month.