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Post-Sept. 11, terrorists increasingly take aim at `soft targets'

WASHINGTON—The bombings in London highlight a post-Sept. 11 trend in which terrorists have been going after easy-to-hit "soft targets" with the aim of inflicting mass casualties, undermining confidence in governments and drumming up new recruits and support.

Some U.S. officials and independent experts attribute the trend in large measure to changes that extremists have made in their tactics since President Bush launched the U.S.-led global campaign against terrorists.

The campaign led to stiffened security precautions and new terrorism laws worldwide, as well as better international counterterrorism cooperation and intelligence sharing. These measures left many senior al-Qaida operatives and thousands of adherents dead or in custody, and they hampered terrorists' fund raising and communications.

Deprived of his sanctuary in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden remains on the run, and his followers and other extremist groups are the targets of massive manhunts.

As a result, it's become far harder for them to pull off complex operations involving large numbers of participants and sums of money moving from continent to continent, U.S. officials and experts say.

In response, they said, al-Qaida has metastasized into a worldwide movement of small cells loosely linked to, or inspired by, bin Laden.

Instead of Sept. 11-style operations that take years to plan, these groups have been mounting strikes requiring much less time, money and people against public places and gatherings and other unguarded or lightly protected targets.

"Part of the reasons that today's al-Qaida is different from the old al-Qaida is that Osama bin Laden no longer has freedom of movement in a liberated zone," said John Pike of globalsecurity.org, an Internet clearinghouse for information on defense and intelligence issues.

Joe Morton, the acting head of the State Department bureau that oversees security for U.S. embassies, said at a conference in May: "We've witnessed ... a shift in the type of targets that terrorists have been choosing.

"Though al-Qaida has been weakened operationally, it has adapted by spreading its ideology to local groups throughout the world," he said. "These extremist regional groups are conducting attacks that are more local and less sophisticated, but still very lethal."

Al-Qaida is the leading suspect in the bombings that killed some 50 people in the London Underground and on a bus on Thursday as British Prime Minister Tony Blair opened the Group of Eight summit of the world's richest nations in Scotland.

Attacks on easy-to-hit targets also have become a daily feature of the war in Iraq, where bombers, many dispatched by al-Qaida's Iraqi affiliate led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, have been hitting hotels, restaurants and other public buildings.

The growing civilian death toll there has fueled disdain for the U.S.-led military coalition and undermined confidence in the Iraqi government's ability to restore security and rebuild the country.

In Afghanistan, a resurgent Taliban militia and al-Qaida followers may now be pursuing a similar strategy against the U.S.-backed government there. Attacks on soft targets have been on the rise. Recent targets include an Internet cafe and a funeral.

Strikes on "soft targets" have also been confounding governments from Indonesia, where 202 people died in October 2002 bombings in the tourist resort of Bali, to Spain, where train bombings in March 2004 killed 191 people, prompting the government's electoral defeat and a Spanish troop pullout from Iraq.

A senior Department of Homeland Security official, speaking on condition of anonymity hours after the London bombings, said U.S. officials remain concerned about terrorist strikes on mass transit systems and other public places in the United States.

Morton said in May that terrorists have been going to extraordinary lengths to mount such attacks.

"Terrorists have gone so far as to conduct surveillance using children, homeless individuals, elderly women and the handicapped," he said. "Terrorists do not hesitate to use animals, dead bodies, police vehicles, garbage trucks and ambulances as a means to conduct bombings."

Despite the absence of a Sept. 11-type operation, U.S. officials and experts warn against complacency, saying terrorists are intent on mounting a catastrophic attack and are attempting to obtain nuclear, chemical or biological weapons to do it.

"One needs to be vigilant," asserted Kenneth Katzman, a terrorism expert with the Congressional Research Service, a research arm of Congress.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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