A new generation of jihad chieftains known as the “baby bin Ladens” are helping al-Qaida to acquire unprecedented capabilities to stage attacks against the West, intelligence officials are warning.

As the established al-Qaida leadership has been degraded by targeted attacks in Afghanistan, a new generation of leaders has helped the jihadist threat grow from Pakistan’s north-west to Timbuktu – raising fears that the war against Islamist terrorism could drag on for decades.

Intelligence experts are warning that figures, such as Pakistan-based Muhammad Illyas Kashmiri, Yemen’s Anwar al-Awlaki, and Somalia’s Ahmed Abdi Godane, have drawn thousands of fighters to their al-Qaida-affiliated groups – far more than Osama bin Laden ever commanded. Bin Laden is estimated to command fewer than 500 operatives.

“Bin Laden has become the new Che Guevara,” said Christine Fair, at Georgetown University. “He’s become an icon for the rage of all kinds of people with all sorts of causes.”

A Pakistani security expert, Ayesha Siddiqa, said the new groups “are like franchises for al-Qaida”.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, another “baby bin Laden” who commands al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, has kidnapped several Western nationals in the Sahara and carried out murderous attacks on troops in Mali and Mauritania. Hassan Abbas, a terrorism expert at Columbia University, New York, said: “Even though al-Qaida is in ruins, new groups have adopted goals that it alone was pursuing earlier.”

Much of the efforts of the new generation have been focused on recruiting in the West. The U.S. Congress’s research service reported that these new al-Qaida “cells and associates are located in over 70 countries”.

Abdul Jabbar, a former Birmingham resident who was killed in a drone strike last September, is reported to have been in charge of a cell training German and British men for Mumbai-style attacks on London.

Yemen’s al-Awlaki recruited Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian national who attempted to blow up a transatlantic flight on Christmas Day in 2009. He also motivated Major Nidal Hassan, who rampaged through the Fort Hood military base in Texas in 2009, killing 13. Godane’s al-Shabaab, a militant Islamist organization, trained the Somali-born Minneapolis college student, Shirwa Ahmed, who killed 30 in a suicide bombing – the first U.S. national to participate in such an attack.

Kashmiri, who runs an organization called Brigade 313, is perhaps the most powerful. Born in 1964, he was recruited by a jihadist group while studying for a degree, and fought against Soviet troops in Afghanistan. From 2007, following a Pakistani military operation targeting radical Islamists in Islamabad, Kashmiri turned his guns against his own country and the West.

New commanders continue to emerge. Last month, police in Indonesia arrested members of a jihadist cell which was planning to kidnap oil executives and a local jihadist group in India bombed the pilgrimage town of Varanasi.

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