* Regional hubs give al Qaeda global reach
* Attacks show al Qaeda menace is evolving
* Danger of West overreacting, some experts say
By William Maclean, Security Correspondent
LONDON, Jan 5 (Reuters) - Al Qaeda has stormed back to menacing prominence in the West with an attempted mass attack, shoring up tottering credibility among admirers impatient for another spectacular strike like Sept 11.
Almost five years after its last mass killing in the West, the failed Christmas Day downing of a U.S. airliner over Detroit shows the group to be resilient, innovative and able to persuade young militants to kill themselves in an anti-Western campaign.
Hatched by al Qaeda followers in Yemen, the attack also demonstrates the threat to the West of the globally-scattered hubs Osama bin Laden has fostered as he has come under more pressure in his redoubts on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Experts draw a similar conclusion from a Jan. 1 attack in Denmark involving a Somali: armed with an axe and suspected of links with al Qaeda, the man broke into the home of a Danish cartoonist whose drawings of the Prophet Mohammad had caused Muslim outrage. The Somali was shot and wounded by police.
“Al Qaeda is back,” said Peter Neumann of London’s Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence.
“It may look different from al Qaeda of 2001, and another 9/11 still seems far-fetched, but Detroit and now Denmark show the threat hasn’t gone ... and is becoming more diverse.”
“It’s no longer just the tribal areas in Pakistan that cause concern, but a lot of locations across the world. There now seem to be regional hubs, which provide all the things -- resources, training, direction -- that used to be done in one place.”
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was quick to claim the Dec. 25 attack, in which a 24-year-old Nigerian tried but failed to properly detonate explosives on a Detroit-bound plane.
Some analysts saw the claim of a failed attack as stark evidence the group is so weakened by Western pressure that it self-servingly lowered the bar for its own success.
Not so, say other analysts. They argue the recent attacks, and a string of arrests of suspected militants in the United States in 2009, show there is no room for complacency, even if the network lacks the depth of talent it had in 2001.
“We have a very formidable and implacable enemy, even if it has been weakened,” said Bruce Hofffman, professor of security studies at Georgetown university in Washington.
“What’s worrisome is they are adapting and adjusting even to this immense pressure that we are putting them under.”
Jeremy Binnie of Jane’s Intelligence says some affiliate groups “may emerge in their own right as international threats.”
Big inroads were made into al Qaeda in 2009, in particular by aerial drones in Pakistan that killed a string of operatives including at least two top members of its external wing.
Fear of death from the air means top men like bin Laden and Egyptian number two Ayman al-Zawahri hide in remote locations and reportedly communicate only by courier, a method which limits their effectiveness either as organisers or ideologues.
“They are very, very wary indeed of meeting anybody that they don’t know...they will do almost anything to deal with people at two or three removes, rather than directly,” U.N. security official Richard Barrett told a Washington audience.
“This makes it very difficult for them to give out a coherent message, an accurate message, and also to use whatever charisma they may have to try and recruit and inspire people.”
The group continues to be irrelevant to the daily concerns of Muslims struggling variously with unemployment, war, famine or bad governance and this limits its following to a hardcore.
Al Qaeda is also under challenge intellectually, with prominent Libyan and Moroccan anti-Western activists in 2009 disowning its view of the world in online writings.
Finances, according to experts who follow the group’s murky money trail, are stretched, and al Qaeda has reminded followers that giving money is a suitable alternative to fighting.
But despite these setbacks the group is still adept at exploiting its regional hubs, its links to effective and deadly Pakistani allies and Western counter-terrorism failings exposed in the Dec. 25 incident.
WEST‘S REACTION MORE DAMAGING THAN THE ATTACK?
David Claridge of Janusian security consultants said the Dec 25 attempt was “fairly predictable and we may see it as a failure. But al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will see it as its first major attack outside its normal operating area.”
Al Qaeda has reason to see potential for growth in 2010.
The U.S. military build-up in Afghanistan and an increase in U.S. security cooperation in Yemen give it plenty of material with which to argue the rulers of Muslim lands are U.S. puppets.
There is potential too, argue some analysts, for the West to hand al Qaeda an easy victory by over-reacting with vastly heightened security steps that could render life intolerable.
Francois Heisbourg, of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, said: “The response is more damaging than the attack. Anyone born in the wrong place or with the wrong skin colour is going to have a pretty bad time at an airport now.”
Some experts said the West had to avoid knee-jerk reactions to events, and adopt an approach carefully calibrated to the actual threat.
“By far the biggest impact of al Qaeda’s operations is the reaction in the United States and Europe. Even if the plane, heaven forbid, had gone down, that in no sense would have been an existential threat to the United States,” said Paul Eedle, a British expert on militant propaganda and political Islam.