Cover Story

BLOODY RAMADAN

COVER STORY: This Islamic holy month has been brutal for the targets of al-Qaeda terror. That-together with protests abroad, impatience at home, and an election around the corner-has President Bush increasingly on the defensive. After meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, his chief ally in the terror war, he boiled the future of the conflict down to two choices: "to keep our word or to break it"

Issue: "Iraq: Bloody Ramadan," Nov. 29, 2003

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.

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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.

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