Anna Rubenstein, an 85-year-old grandmother, became the latest named casualty in the global war on terror last week. Her body-actually her upper torso only-was found by an Israeli disaster team who, with Turkish rescuers, are combing bomb-riddled rubble in Istanbul. The discovery and positive identification of her remains raised to 24 the number of the dead in Istanbul's twin synagogue bombings on Nov. 15. Earlier, on the day of the attack, the body of Mrs. Rubenstein's 8-year-old granddaughter, attending Sabbath services with her grandmother, was recovered from the rubble.
At the very same hours, 800 miles east of the Anatolian Plateau in central Iraq, forensic experts from the U.S. military sifted the wreckage near where two U.S. helicopters collided and crashed. Seventeen U.S. soldiers were killed. Investigators did not rule out the possibility that one or both choppers were fired on from the ground. Whether accident or act of war, the crash marked for coalition forces the single largest loss of life in Iraq.
Two years and two months have passed since President Bush mourned a conflict "begun on the timing and terms of others," and promised "it will end in a way, and at an hour, of our choosing." With attacks once again arcing out from the Middle East to central Asia and across the Mediterranean, the war on terror feels anything but self-directed and far from its final hour.
The month of Ramadan has been a brutal, nerve-rending season for American forces, terror experts, and potential victims-in other words, ordinary people just about anywhere. When the president arrived in London to meet with Prime Minister Tony Blair, Iraq was the focus of protesters, but the two heads of state realize they have a new phase of terror war on their hands.
"Evil is in plain sight," Mr. Bush declared in London. "It only increases with denial."
Traditionally a season of reflection and sacrifice for Muslims, Ramadan observance has been exploited by terrorists who whip religious zeal into a vehicle for violence. They began the first day of Ramadan with car bombs at Red Cross headquarters and at four police stations in Baghdad. The spree killed 39, mostly non-Americans. Daily bombings and assaults from rocket-propelled grenade launchers-including one attack on a Chinook helicopter that took 16 lives-have together killed over 50 U.S. servicemen in Iraq since Ramadan began Oct. 27. Additionally, a car bomb in front of Italian headquarters in Nasiriyah killed 19 Italians and nine Iraqis.
Ramadan wasn't an excuse for stepped-up attacks in Iraq only.
Suicide bombers in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, killed 17 people and wounded 122-nearly all Arabs.
In Afghanistan French UN worker Bettina Goislard was shot dead on Nov. 16 while riding in a clearly marked UN vehicle. The same day a remote-control bomb nearly killed three UN workers in Paktia province. One week earlier a car bomb exploded outside UN headquarters in Kandahar, but no one was killed or injured.
The attack in Istanbul-the deadliest terror incident in Turkey in 20 years-displayed the most elaborate coordination of any attacks this month. Two vehicles, each packing 500-pound bombs of ammonium sulfate (fertilizer) and compressed fuel, detonated only two minutes apart at two separate synagogues three miles from one another. In addition to the 24 killed, more than 300 were wounded. Six victims were attending Jewish Sabbath services; the rest were Muslims in the streets.
The growing sophistication and pace of attacks prompted one reporter to ask the president: Are we seeing a reconstitution of al-Qaeda?
"We're seeing the nature of al-Qaeda," Mr. Bush replied. "They'll kill innocent people anywhere, any time. That's just the way they are. They have no regard for human life. They claim they're religious people, but they're not. Religious people do not murder innocent citizens. Religious people don't just indiscriminately bomb."
Democratic presidential hopefuls used the stepped-up attacks to downgrade Mr. Bush on foreign policy. Wes Clark has called the war in Iraq "a sideshow" to the war on terror, and Howard Dean started television ads attacking rival Dick Gephardt for supporting the president in Iraq. What's lacking in their current campaign strategy is serious focus on what could be a resurgent terror menace.
What we are looking at is the continued development of a reconstituted al-Qaeda," said Jonathan Schanzer of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. After the United States invaded Afghanistan, al-Qaeda was forced to shift from what Mr. Schanzer calls a hierarchical structure, highly dependent on Osama bin Laden, to something more dispersed and decentralized. "It's now operating under a franchise structure, not from headquarters," he said. Al-Qaeda affiliates are able to do Osama bin Laden's bidding but with only financial assistance, some logistics, and weapons training coming directly from the core.
Under the new structure Osama bin Laden, wherever he may be, is a nonessential figurehead. "He gives spiritual and symbolic encouragement, but it is not necessary for him to be involved in directly carrying out attacks," said Mr. Schanzer.
If this month's attacks look scattershot, the rhetoric from the Islamist bases is pointed.
"A huge and very courageous strike" against the United States, with casualties exceeding 100,000, will happen during Ramadan, predicted Abu Salma al-Hijazi, a reputed al-Qaeda commander. He boasted on the Islamist website Al-Qala that the attack will "amaze the world and turn al-Qaeda into an organization that horrifies the world until the law of Allah is implemented." His comments were reportedly made from Iraq near Fallujah.
Another Fallujah-based group called Muhammad's Army claimed responsibility for the Nov. 2 downing of a U.S. helicopter near the town where 16 soldiers were killed. The militant group warned that U.S. forces would face more attacks if they did not leave Iraq in 15 days. The group says it wants to return Saddam Hussein to power. It also claimed responsibility, in a videotaped message broadcast by Al Hayat-LBC satellite station in Lebanon, for the assassination of a pro-U.S. member of the Iraq Governing Council, Aquila al-Hashimi. She was gunned down near her Baghdad home in September.
Western intelligence heads are alert to new and varied threats. The Department of Homeland Security declined to raise its terror-threat level to yellow, or elevated, earlier this month but did send written notices of new threats to local law-enforcement agencies. Those threats include plans by al-Qaeda to hijack cargo planes, assaults on soft targets like shopping malls in New York, threats against American journalists in Afghanistan, and threats to U.S. embassies in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Bosnia.
In Israel, Meir Dagan, the chief of Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, met with members of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Security Committee Nov. 17 to describe at least 40 recent threat warnings received by his bureau against Jewish and Israeli targets. Mossad historically keeps contacts with legislators to a minimum, fearing leaks. This was the first time in 18 years a Mossad chief met with the committee.
Persistent threats are taking their toll on the resolve of U.S. allies, both in Iraq and elsewhere. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi promised to continue Italy's "important mission" in Iraq, but an Italian official working for the coalition resigned, citing frustration with the pace of U.S. reconstruction efforts in Iraq. Spain, another important U.S. ally, withdrew embassy personnel following the attack on Italian police. Japan, ready to deploy troops to foreign soil for the first time in its post-war history, withdrew the offer after the attack on Italian forces. South Korea plans to cap at 3,000 the number of troops it plans to send to aid in reconstruction.
Turkey, which last month backed down from sending troops to Iraq because it feared just the sort of attack executed on Nov. 15, moved quickly to track suspects in the bombings. Using DNA tests, police identified Mesut Cabuk, 29, and Gokhan Elaltuntas, 22, as the suicide bombers. Police also identified two accomplices, who fled to Dubai weeks before the attack.
The four were members of a little-known group called Beyyiat el-Imam ("Allegiance to the Imam"). The group was formed in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and its cleric leader, Abu Musab, is believed to have fled to Iran after the U.S.-led war. Investigators found Pakistani passports for the bombers among the blast debris, and believe they could lead back to other terror cells. Law enforcers have reason to hope that in the latest attacks the terrorists are sowing the seeds of their own destruction.
About 20,000 Jews live in Istanbul and date their residence back to the 15th century, when their ancestors fled the Inquisition in Spain. Turkey is unique, both as a U.S. ally and a terror target-the only Muslim nation in NATO, the only Muslim nation contending to join the European Union, and Israel's only Muslim ally in the Middle East. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has a long record of support for Islamist causes, sounded remarkably pluralistic after the attacks: "People who died in bomb attacks are all citizens of Turkey. No matter what their religions are, all of them are Turkish citizens and our people."
Meanwhile, coalition forces in neighboring Iraq aren't sitting on their hands. In one week soldiers with the 101st Airborne captured more than 50 terror suspects. A Nov. 13 raid netted an eight-member cell in southwest Mosul, including a leader who is accused of plotting to assassinate one coalition commander. A night raid the same day produced three additional arrests, all of people known to have been involved in recent attacks.
Latif and Salif Ibrahim, the brothers of captured Lt. Gen. Khamis Salah Ibrahim Al Halboosi, were detained for their part in an improvised explosive device attack on a U.S. Army convoy, which destroyed an ammunition truck near Fallujah in October.
When the brothers were detained, the paratroopers seized an AK-47, an RPG launcher, two RPG rounds, and 36 million dinars (about U.S. $24,000). That money, say Central Command officials, is being used to hire insurgents to attack coalition forces.
U.S. units are regularly seizing large weapons caches. A Nov. 7 discovery yielded 84 antitank missiles, 45 high-explosive rockets, and hundreds of artillery rounds.
Captured Iraqi soldiers say Saddam regularly gave his troops the Mark Bowden bestseller Black Hawk Down. The disheartening account of U.S. retreat in Somalia, the book became Saddam's strategy text in how to break U.S. morale. But no one is expecting Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair to come away from their three-day meeting with a cut-and-run strategy. According to Mr. Schanzer, "If there is a shift in strategy, it will be to go more on the offensive." Or as President Bush put it, the United States and Britain have just two choices: "to keep our word or to break it."