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Al-Qaida's Hit List Appears to be Changing.

Al-Qaida's Hit List Appears to be Changing.

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Al-Qaida's hit list appears to be changing.

American ships, embassies and financial hubs were the successful targets of Osama bin Laden's organization until U.S. security was radically overhauled in the wake of Sept. 11.

Now the group, and those with possible al-Qaida links, are choosing "softer," more international targets such as a Spanish restaurant in Morocco, a Kenyan resort frequented by Israelis and a Saudi housing complex home to both Americans and Europeans.

No longer are American targets the first or only choices.

Experts say the apparent broader range of targets are easier to strike and often serve double duty, fitting aims of both al-Qaida's global approach and the local militants it works through -- from Africa to Asia to America. More alarmingly, such attacks are proving difficult to gain intelligence on and avert.

All of the recent attacks have been attributed, on some level, to al-Qaida and militant groups it works with. While those links are difficult to prove, the terrorist network's familiar fingerprints are everywhere.

"Al-Qaida itself and the Islamic radical organizations it's connected to have a variety of possible targets and they choose the ones that are easiest to attack and that will accomplish all their aims," said Boaz Ganor, an Israeli counterterrorism specialist.

Al-Qaida, which began its activities in the early 1990s in opposition to U.S. troop presence in Saudi Arabia, the Islamic holy land, has broadened its agenda in recent years to target Western culture and commerce in general. It has claimed everything from Iraq to the Palestinian conflict as its interests.

Ganor said U.S. intelligence has probably milked all it could from suspects held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and from some bigger al-Qaida operatives in U.S. custody such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, captured in Pakistan earlier this year. Bin Laden himself remains free, although the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan took away his longtime safe haven.

"If you don't have new intelligence resources and new people to interrogate, then you find yourself confronting new planners and new initiatives that you don't know anything about," he said.

Some 680 prisoners are being held at Guantanamo, and a small handful arrived only last week. President Bush said earlier this month that "half of all the top al-Qaida operatives are either jailed or dead."

"In either case, they're not a problem anymore," the president said.

Intelligence gleaned from interrogations there, and from arrests made in Europe, is believed to have helped thwart several attacks planned against U.S. targets in Italy, Britain and Singapore.

Ganor said attacks in the last six months in Kenya, Saudi Arabia and Morocco were still aimed at killing Americans, although al-Qaida was also trying to galvanize fresh support across the Muslim world by striking at Jewish interests.

An ancient synagogue in Tunisia was attacked in April 2002, killing 21 people; an attack on Israeli tourists in Kenya in November killed three Israelis and nine Kenyans; and a Jewish community center and cemetery were among several targets bombed in Morocco.

The Friday attacks in the Moroccan city of Casablanca, which killed 28 people and 13 of the suspected 14 bombers, also targeted a Spanish restaurant and hit the Belgian consulate.

A U.S. counterterrorism official said during the weekend that al-Qaida's apparent intention is to conduct a series of strikes against lightly defended targets. Al-Qaida maintains a presence in Morocco, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Moroccan attacks came four days after suicide attacks on Saudi housing complexes for foreigners killed 34 people, including eight Americans and nine bombers. Saudi officials said Sunday they believe the attacks may be the work of al-Qaida.

U.S. intelligence officials have said the operation was most likely run by al-Qaida members stationed outside Saudi Arabia. The bombings, however, may been carried out by locals. Saudi officials said they were still trying to identify the attackers' bodies.

U.S. lawmakers said Sunday the attacks show the difficulty of battling terrorism.

"We're doing a much better job of protecting the hard targets. You're now seeing these soft targets, which is primarily people, housing projects, not military installations, being attacked," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, speaking on NBC. "And that's a good sign from the standpoint of interrupting and disrupting. It's just a bad sign from the standpoint that we're likely to see more casualties."

Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, added, "Al-Qaida was never gone. We took out part of its top leadership, and that's a great victory to have done that. However, it's a loosely organized, horizontal network. And the danger now is that Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas and all the other terrorist groups will join each other."

In Russia, Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said bin Laden was trying to widen his holy crusade against the West.

"It is becoming ever more obvious that a terrorist organization with al-Qaida at its head is trying to shift to a counterattack against the entire civilized world after the defeat in Afghanistan," Yakovenko said.

CIA, said the recent attacks show that "al-Qaida is strong in those areas where they have indigenous infrastructure and benign environments." As examples, he noted several attacks in Southeast Asia that have been tied to the al-Qaida-affiliated group Jemmah Islamiya.

An interior ministry official in Morocco, speaking on condition of anonymity, said police were trying to determine whether the al-Qaida-affiliated group Salafia Jihadia played a role in Friday's attacks. A second militant group called Attakfir wal Hijra is also suspected, the official said.

But al-Qaida's abilities are no longer as strong in Western Europe or North America, where Cannistraro said "the alert level is higher and significant people have been taken off the streets."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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