Franchising terrorism

New book describes the metamorphosis of Al Qaeda in Europe

It was another grim news day, with word that Osama Bin Laden had released a new audiotape, pledging once again to attack the United States, but oddly offering a “truce.” The public appetite for news was high as “The Curtis Report,” airing on New England Cable News (NECN), broadcast its nightly news show.

Lorenzo Vidino © ZARA TZANEV

The segment began with Vice President Dick Cheney and White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan delivering sound bites designed to show the Bush administration’s resolve. But what did this latest development really mean?

The cameras switched to the in-studio guest—a terrorism expert. Lorenzo Vidino, knowledgeable, calm and measured, proceeded to offer insights about this latest development. He said the tape might have been designed to boost the morale of terrorists around the world.

Asked if it was related to the recent U.S. air strikes on the Afghan-Pakistani border, Vidino was cautious. “It could be,” he said, noting that the tape had surfaced less than a week after the air strikes and that it generally took a good week to get a tape out to the world. He dismissed Bin Laden’s offer of a truce as “a PR move,” theorizing that it might be “part of a new campaign to add a political dimension” to Al Qaeda’s terrorist activities. And he noted that the Al Qaeda leadership had been “partially defeated” and was now “more of a movement,” held together as a group of “franchises” operating in Europe and elsewhere. “The Madrid-type of attack [train bombings] in the United States would be considered a defeat,” he said.

By all counts, it was an impressive performance by an impressive young man. Lorenzo Vidino speaks four languages (seven if you count languages he can read, including ancient Greek), has a law degree from the University of Milan and has testified before Congress. He is also the author of a new book, Al Qaeda in Europe: The New Battleground of International Jihad (Prometheus Books, 2006), written when he was deputy director of the Investigative Project, a Washington, D.C.-based counter-terrorism institute.

Vidino’s book was featured in a December 5 special report cover story in U.S. News & World Report and has received media play overseas, including the London Sunday Telegraph. He also appeared on Danish television station DR, the country’s most watched network.

Impressive? Even more so, considering that Vidino just turned 29 in January and is a first-year student at the Fletcher School.

Daunting numbers
Vidino said he decided to write his book about Al Qaeda’s European activities because much of the terrorism research and analysis to date has centered on terrorism directed at the United States. Citing the more recent attacks on Paris, London and Madrid, he said, “Practically nobody has analyzed the networks in Europe. Every attack carried out by Al Qaeda since 1993 [the year of the first World Trade Center attacks] has had some kind of European link. For the 9/11 attacks, three or four of the pilots were recruited in Hamburg; the planning took place in Germany and Spain.”

The number of radical Islamists in Europe is daunting, Vidino said. “Germany has between 30,000 and 40,000 known Islamists. In England, there are about 3,000, many of whom were trained in Afghanistan,” he said.

While radical Islamic groups had been growing throughout Europe over the last 25 years, Vidino said the composition of the group has changed more recently. “They were very extensive, very sophisticated and well organized,” he said. “Al Qaeda has become a looser organization, providing more logistical support such as false passports and money for terrorist activities.” In other words, Al Qaeda is more homegrown—more a series of European franchises selling a product (terrorism) more exclusively while carrying the company’s brand name (Al Qaeda).

Atypical assassins
Vidino cited two chilling examples: the 2002 abduction and beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and the murder in 2004 of prominent Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, a distant relative of the artist.

Those assassinations did not fall into the stereotypical view of terrorists as impoverished and downtrodden. He noted Omar Saeed Sheikh came from a well-to-do family living in London. “Omar Sheikh, the guy who beheaded Daniel Pearl, is the son of a very wealthy Pakistani merchant,” Vidino said. “He attended the London School of Economics, went to Bosnia to fight with the muhajadeen, then went to Pakistan and jointed a radical group. In fact, he affected a charming cockney accident to ingratiate himself with Western tourists—whom he would then kidnap.”

Van Gogh’s assassination was no less brutal. Dutch Islamists had been angered by the filmmaker’s documentary that is critical of radical Islam and its mistreatment of women. Van Gogh was riding his bike through the busy downtown streets of Amsterdam on his way to his production house. “A Dutch-born Moroccan chased after him and shot him at least five times. The attacker, believed to be Mohammed Bouyeri or one of his surrogates, tried to behead Van Gogh with a butcher’s knife while the filmmaker pleaded for his life.

Vidino said the murderer pinned a five-page letter to Van Gogh’s heart—a Declaration of War against the West. “He was part of a cell of 40 to 50 people,” he said. Bouyeri had been shadowing his target for six months. Van Gogh had refused police protection.

If there is good news, Vidino said, it is this: Al Qaeda does not currently have an extensive network in the United States. But, he noted, there is no foolproof way of guarding against future attacks. “Look at Israel,” he said. “Israel is a small country and has great security. Yet attacks happen.”

Terry Ann Knopf is the media relations manager for the Fletcher School. She can be reached at