WASHINGTON — President Bush defines an "axis of evil," with Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as leading participants. But the menace of terrorism today appears to stem less from rogue states than from stateless rogues.
Take the case of Jose Padilla who is being held as a material witness. American officials say he met with top leaders of Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan and discussed a plan to acquire a radiological "dirty bomb" and introduce it into the United States. The Justice Department has not said that any government was involved.
Or take the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, which congressional committees have been poring over. Coleen Rowley of the Minneapolis FBI had trouble before Sept. 11 getting her superiors to apply for a warrant to examine the laptop computer of Mr. Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan origin and suspected hijack plotter.
The FBI higher-ups said they were unable to link the suspect to a foreign power, the usual grounds for obtaining a warrant from the secret court which dispenses them. French intelligence had advised that Moussaoui had connections with Muslim extremists in Chechnya, but it was not American policy to call the Chechen rebels terrorists, even though the Russians blamed them for a series of apartment- house bombings.
Moussaoui had attended a sort of terrorist summit in the condominium of a Malaysian Al Qaeda organizer in Kuala Lumpur, but he was no state. Moussaoui's notebook contained the phone number for the apartment in Hamburg, Germany, of a Yemeni man said by the French to be a paymaster for the Sept. 11 hijackers. He was no foreign power, either.
What congressional committees are discovering is that a shadowy terrorist network has developed, almost global in its reach, but not known to be acting as the instrument for any particular government. Indeed, in the case of Afghanistan, it appears that Al Qaeda made the Taliban into its instrument, which is what made it eligible for American attack.
Notice that the names of the president's favorite "axis of evil" candidates Iraq, Iran, and North Korea don't come up when congressional committees are looking at potential bombers and hijackers. President Bush, in his West Point speech on June 1, spoke of taking preemptive action against states that threaten to strike America. He is generally believed to have had Iraq in mind.
But rogue states presumably know better than to risk massive retaliation from a superpower. The problem is: Against whom do you retaliate when the threat comes from the Padillas and the Moussaouis with no known return address?
Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.