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MIDDLE EAST: Listening to Al Qaeda

April 5, 2008 |  8:41 am


With the world mostly focused on the ongoing violence in Iraq and the threat of confrontation between Iran and the United States, Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda — which sparked the confrontation between the West and the Islamic world — have almost slipped into the background.

But several stories in this week's Los Angeles Times zeroed in on Al Qaeda's operations, funding and history. What emerges is a picture of an organization, hiding in the hinterlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan, struggling mightily to stay relevant and robust.

The Times' Sebastian Rotella wrote an in-depth report on an emerging leader of the organization — Abu Ubaida al Masri, an obscure Egyptian explosives expert who has become Al Qaeda's "chief of external operations."

He's been behind several botched operations abroad, and his foibles as well as his minor successes show Al Qaeda's weaknesses:

Pursuers have captured or killed his predecessors and have been gunning for him. He prowls Pakistani badlands one step ahead of satellites and security forces ... Masri's emergence reflects Al Qaeda's resilient, hydra-like structure. As leaders fall, mid-level chiefs step up, shifting tactics and targets with determination and innovation. But Al Qaeda seems diminished despite insistent propaganda and an onslaught of violence in Iraq, South Asia and North Africa. The network has not pulled off an attack in the West since 2005.

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill this week, Treasury Department official Stuart Levey pinpointed the source for much of Al Qaeda's funding: Saudi Arabia, the wellspring of the Wahhabi strain of Islam that drives Al Qaeda as well as the birthplace of Bin Laden and 17 of the 19 hijackers who perpetrated the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Times' Josh Meyer covered the hearing at which Levey spoke. "Saudi Arabia today remains the location where more money is going to terrorism, to Sunni terror groups and to the Taliban than any other place in the world," Levey told lawmakers:

Levey said the Saudis had been aggressive in going after terrorist cells. But he said they had not lived up to promises to establish the kind of financial intelligence unit needed to trace the money trails of terrorists. Another problem is that the Saudi government has not set up a charity oversight commission to track whether donations end up in the hands of extremists. Levey said the Saudi government has not moved to publicly hold accountable those within the kingdom who have been the subject of enforcement actions by the U.S. and other authorities.

This week, Al Qaeda itself also emerged from the shadows. Its No. 2, Ayman Zawahiri, the Egyptian who has served as Bin Laden's mentor, gave an online chat in which he defended his group's attacks:

We haven't killed the innocents, not in Baghdad, nor in Morocco, nor in Algeria, nor anywhere else...If there is any innocent who was killed in the mujahedin's operations, then it was either an unintentional error or out of necessity.

The Washington Post website includes a transcript detailing other parts from the chat.

Finally, Times columnist Tim Rutten wrote a review of a new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Steve Coll about Bin Laden. Rutten praises "The Bin Ladens" as a far-sighted book that provides an alternative account of the last 100 years.

While the great struggles of the American Century — world wars, depression, imperialism, the fights with right- and left-wing totalitarianisms — were preoccupying us, out of sight and beyond our Western and essentially secular understanding, men, ideas and appetites born of a desert waste were conjoining in ways that created the first great challenge of this new era, the confrontation with Islamic jihadism.

Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

P.S. The Los Angeles Times issues a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East, the war in Iraq and the confrontation between the West and Islam. You can subscribe by registering at the website here, logging in here and clicking on the World: Mideast newsletter box here.

Photo: A picture dated 1998 shows Saudi-born Osama bin Laden smiling as he sits in a cave in the Jalalabad region of Afghanistan. Credit: EPA/STR