Al-Qaida and its allies: a worldwide threat

IISS survey highlights grim challenges to global security - terrorism, shortages, nuclear bombs and war

Thursday September 13, 2007
The Guardian


The IISS survey claims al-Qaida is resurgent and capable of "carrying out large-scale attacks in the western world". It also points out that the organisation has acquired a string of affiliates in Iraq, northern Africa and elsewhere prepared to carry out attacks to further Osama bin Laden's objectives. Meanwhile, the war in Iraq has provided both a recruiting tool for al-Qaida and a "crucible" for producing "hardened jihadists", the IISS argues.

There is no dispute that al-Qaida is recovering from its apparent near-extinction in the mountains of Afghanistan in late 2001. But terrorism experts question whether Bin Laden's followers have regained their pre-2001 capacity.

"As an absolute fact they are not back at their 9/11 strength," said Peter Bergen, an authority on Bin Laden and al-Qaida at the New America Foundation in Washington. He pointed out that in 2001, al-Qaida had the run of most of Afghanistan for bases and training camps. Its current room for manoeuvre in Pakistan's tribal areas is more limited.

Mr Bergen also expressed doubt that al-Qaida had the same capacity to mount a spectacular attack on US territory. "If there are sleeper cells still in America, they must be comatose. And the American-Muslim community do not seem susceptible to al-Qaida ideology."

However, he said Bin Laden's organisation had shown a clear capacity to launch coordinated and large-scale assaults in Europe, particularly in Britain, and could be capable of a "7/7 attack every year" - a reference to the coordinated London bombings in July 2005.

Steven Monblatt, a former counter-terrorism coordinator at the US state department now at the British American Security Information Council, said: "There is no doubt al-Qaida has strengthened its capability in the last year and a half." But he added: "Most western countries that are potential targets have also reconstituted their defence capacity."


The survey says that Iran has installed 3,000 gas centrifuges for enriching uranium at its plant in Natanz, in central Iran, and the IISS authors estimate a worst-case scenario that Iran would be able to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb by 2009 or 2010.

Iran insists it has the right to enrich uranium, which it says is exclusively for generating electricity, and it has defied UN security resolutions calling for it to suspend enrichment. Tehran claims it now has 3,000 centrifuges at Natanz. If dedicated to producing highly enriched weapons grade uranium and if working perfectly, that would be enough to produce enough fissile material for a bomb in about a year. But the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) believes the true figure is nearer 2,000. The IAEA's environmental samples also suggested that Iran had not yet reached the 4.8% enrichment level it is claiming, let alone 90% weapons grade enrichment.

"Their machines are operating inefficiently, partly because of technical problems and because of political self-constraint," said David Albright, a former UN weapons inspector and nuclear expert, who now runs the Institute for Science and International Security. However, he agrees with the IISS estimate that Iran could have enough fissile material for a bomb by 2009, particularly as there is no way of knowing, with the current limits on IAEA's investigative capacity in Iran, whether the Iranian military has a secret enrichment programme running in parallel with the visible programme in Natanz.

Climate Change

The IISS report highlights the security implications of climate change, warning that it could inflict catastrophic damage "on the level of a nuclear war". Apart from direct impact on sea levels, weather and agriculture, it would trigger mass migration and conflicts over ever-scarcer resources. "Climate change is at the heart of both national and collective security," the report says.

Some experts question the comparison with nuclear war. Global warming is setting in more gradually and with more warning than a nuclear exchange. But the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the authority on the subject, does suggest the cumulative effects could be equally devastating.

Daniel Mittler, a climate change expert at Greenpeace, said the comparison was "perfectly reasonable".

"It's clear that climate change is the most dramatic challenge humanity faces today. We can't say every one of these disasters will hit, but it's clear that these kind of events will become more frequent and more severe. It is a sad indictment of the politicians who have known about the problem for a number of years," he said.


The survey delivers a pessimistic outlook for Iraq. It is sceptical about the strength and integrity of Iraqi forces, and about the capacity or willingness of Nuri al-Maliki's government to forge a national consensus. The cabinet is crippled by corruption, it says. Faced with the continued failure of the Maliki government to strengthen its hold, it argues that the Bush administration has "two stark choices": to carry on as before in the face of continuing troop losses or make a radical change, probably involving a new prime minister.

Claire Spencer, the head of the Middle East programme at the Chatham House thinktank, agreed the Iraqi government had failed to exert any control outside the "green zone" in Baghdad. However, she suggested that there was a growing realisation in Washington that the parliament and cabinet were so hopelessly split along sectarian lines that it would be better to support local self-government to rebuild "from the bottom up".

"Things are stabilising at the periphery much faster than they are at the centre," she said.

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