Al Qaida 'Has 18,000 Terrorists Waiting to Attack' By Helen William, PA News Al Qaida has more than 18,000 terrorists waiting for the order to attack targets in Europe and the US, preferably with weapons of mass destruction, a leading think-tank said today. The war in Iraq has focused the energies and resources of al Qaida and its followers while diluting those of the global counter-terrorism coalition, the International Institute for Strategic Studies argued. Despite the killing or capture of around 2,000 al Qaida fighters, including some key figures, the group remains a powerhouse for Islamic terrorists operating in more than 60 countries, the IISS annual Strategic Survey warned. And western targets are firmly in the firing line. The Madrid bombings in March 2004 suggested that al Qaida had fully reconstituted, set its sights firmly on the US and its closest western allies in Europe, and established a new and effective modus operandi that increasingly exploited local affiliates, IISS director John Chipman told a central London press conference. Al Qaida must be expected to keep trying to develop more promising plans for terrorist operations in North America and Europe, potentially involving weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile, soft targets encompassing Americans, Europeans and Israelis, and aiding the insurgency in Iraq, will suffice. The IISSs 18,000 figure is based on intelligence estimates that al Qaida trained at least 20,000 fighters in its camps in Afghanistan before the United States and its allies ousted the Taliban regime. Much damage has also been inflicted upon political and military affairs across Europe since the Iraq war began in March 2003, the IISS contends. The report said: Politically, it split the US and major continental European powers, leaving the United Kingdom uncomfortably in the middle, and induced uncertainty in other governments about the extent of any contribution to the post-conflict effort. On the military front, the wars high maintenance character has set a forbidding precedent that even the US will find difficult to meet, the IISS argue. US action has left Europe suffering from strategic arthritis, it said. In having initially marginalised the United Nations in going into battle, the war has broadened the criteria for intervention beyond humanitarian concerns or imminent threats to strategic transformation. The report said: The Iraq war and its aftermath have also raised serious questions about pre-emptive and preventative war as a means of counter-proliferation, and about the uses and abuses of intelligence as a basis for military action. On another cautionary note, the IISS warns that while the focus remains on the war against terror major problems could loom in other regions that the world is not prepared for. These could include a shift in diplomacy from North Korea, a sudden genocide in Africa or a massive civil war needing an urgent humanitarian response. Strategic surprises are more likely in the prevailing environment than they were during the Cold War or before, the report concludes. The US government is struggling against mismanaged interventions and peacekeeping operations to maintain the difficult balance between its reputation, prestige and power, Dr Chipman argued. He said: The US is realising the awful truth that the first law of peacekeeping is the same as the first law of forensics every contact leaves a trace. Unfortunately, too many bad traces have been left recently, and many good ones will be needed for the US to recover its reputation, its prestige and therefore effective power. An efficiently executed plan for the full handover of sovereignty to Iraq and stronger international support for that strategy is vital to the US. Any chance of winning over hearts and minds will be lost if US unilateralism is not tempered and the next six months will be a substantial test to the coalition, he said.