MADRID, Spain, AP – They rose up quickly to take up Osama bin Laden’s call for jihad, ruthless men in their 20s and 30s heralded as the next generation of global terror. Two years later, 40 percent are dead, targets of a worldwide crackdown that claimed its biggest victory with the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaida’s front man in Iraq.
Manhunts in Asia, Africa and Europe have pushed most of the rest deep underground — finding refuge in wartorn Somalia or the jungles of the southern Philippines. While there are still recruits ready to take up al-Qaida’s call to arms, analysts say the newcomers have fewer connections than the men they are replacing, less training and sparser resources.
“There are more people popping up than are being put away,” said Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at the Swedish National Defense College. “But the question is whether the new ones have the fortitude to take up the mantle and carry the struggle forward. I don’t see that they have.”
A 2004 Associated Press analysis named a dozen young terror suspects as front-line leaders, their hands stained with the blood of attacks from Bali to Baghdad, Casablanca to Madrid.
Al-Zarqawi, who sat atop the 2004 list as the biggest threat after bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri, died Wednesday when U.S. forces dropped two 500-pound bombs on his hideout northeast of Baghdad.
Tom Ridge, the former Homeland Security chief, cautioned Friday that governments can only reduce the risk from terrorism, not eliminate it.
“There will be a successor to bin Laden, as there will be a successor, unfortunately, to Zarqawi,” he said in a speech in Paris. “There will be a successor to al-Qaida.”
But Ranstorp said it was far from clear if al-Zarqawi’s replacement will have the contacts, resources or capacity to match the dead leader’s effectiveness at the helm of Iraqi insurgent forces.
“I’m not convinced that there is somebody ready to step in and fill Zarqawi’s shoes,” he said. “There may be, but it will take some time.”
Globally, security forces have also had considerable success. Another four of the top 12 young militants in the 2004 list have met violent ends — in shootouts in Saudi Arabia, under U.S. bombardment in Iraq, or in an Algerian terror sweep. The seven who remain at large are on the run, and none has been able to match al-Zarqawi’s success at launching large-scale attacks since mid-2004.
Counterterrorism officials warn that others have emerged as equally or more dangerous, and that the global fight against Islamic militancy is far from won. But tracking the fate of the “class of 2004” gives a rare insight into the landscape of Islamic militancy, and the short life expectancy of those who take up arms.
Joining al-Zarqawi in the list of dead militant leaders is Nabil Sahraoui, who took over the North African Salafist Group for Call and Combat in 2004 and announced that he was merging it with al-Qaida. Sahraoui did not have much time to savor his power play. The militant, who was in his 30s, was gunned down by Algerian troops that same year east of Algiers.
Habib Akdas, the accused ringleader of the 2003 bombings in Istanbul, Turkey, and another member of the class of 2004, died during the U.S. bombardment of the Iraqi city of Fallujah in November of that year, according to the testimony of an al-Qaida suspect in U.S. custody. Turkish security forces believe the account and say Akdas, who was also in his 30s, is dead.
Syrian-born Loa’i Mohammad Haj Bakr al-Saqa, who has emerged as an even more senior leader of the Istanbul bombings, but who was not included in the 2004 list of top terror suspects, is in a Turkish jail awaiting trial on terror charges.
Two other men who were on the 2004 list met their ends at the hands of security forces in Saudi Arabia.
Abdulaziz al-Moqrin, 30, who rose from high school dropout to become al-Qaida’s leader in the kingdom, was cornered and killed by security forces in Riyadh in 2004, shortly after he masterminded the kidnapping and beheading of American engineer Paul M. Johnson.
In 2005, Saudi forces shot and killed Abdelkrim Mejjati, a Moroccan in his late 30s who was believed to have played a leading role in the May 2003 bombings in Casablanca that killed more than 30 people. Mejjati came from a privileged background, attending an exclusive French school in Morocco before turning to terrorism. He was sent to Saudi Arabia on bin Laden’s orders, becoming one of the kingdom’s most wanted men.
For most of those at large, life is anything but easy.
Amer el-Azizi, a Moroccan-born al-Qaida recruiter in Spain, has disappeared, though Spanish intelligence officials who had his wife under surveillance say that in 2003 the woman fled to Morocco, and later turned up in London and then Afghanistan.
Little is known about the fate of Saad Houssaini, a suspected co-plotter in the Casablanca attacks. Newspaper reports said he was arrested along the Syria-Iraq border and turned over to Morocco, but Moroccan officials have denied that.
Dulmatin, a key suspect in the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings, and Khadaffy Janjalani, chief of the extremist group Abu Sayyaf, have taken refuge on the Philippine island of Jolo, along with a force of 70-80 men, according to Philippine military officials. They are believed to be running low on weapons and ammunition.
Zulkarnaen, an Indonesia native who is operations chief of the Jemaah Islamiyah terror group, is believed to be hiding on the island of Java, though his location has not been verified since late 2002.
Two terror suspects, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, are believed to be holed up in Mogadishu, the Somali capital. The men are being sheltered by extremists who are part of the Islamic Courts Union, which took over the city this week.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said earlier this year that Washington supplied information about the men and their locations to Somali community leaders and urged them to turn them over to U.S. authorities. A group of secular warlords, believed financed by the United States, attacked the Islamic forces, but was driven from Mogadishu on Monday.