Al Qaeda: often foiled, still global
Bin Laden's network has not successfully attacked the US since 2001 but fosters worldwide support for its war of ideas.
Six years after the attacks of Sept. 11, the terrorist group that struck those blows has transformed into a resilient and still deadly organization.Skip to next paragraph
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US intelligence judges that extremist Islamic jihadists remain a persistent and evolving threat. Al Qaeda's central leadership has rebuilt, while a ring of loosely affiliated terror franchises have arisen in Europe, Asia, and Africa, according to official estimates.
But to the terrorists themselves the most important thing may be that they simply exist. Their view of the struggle may be very different from the West's.
"To us, war is a finite undertaking with a clear beginning and a clear end," says Brian Jenkins, a senior adviser to the president of RAND Corp. in Arlington, Va. "To our jihadist foes, war is a perpetual condition."
For instance, if Al Qaeda's central leaders have their own version of an intelligence assessment of their current standing in the world, it might go something like this:
"Dear brothers – the good news is that we have survived the mightiest blows the infidel West can deliver. Our central infrastructure is being rebuilt in Pakistan under the operational leadership of deputy emir Ayman al-Zawahiri.
"Western intelligence credits us with an attack every other month. But from our point of view, the important thing is not the attacks themselves, but what they reveal about who we have inspired. We even have European nationals now clamoring for small-arms and explosives training.
"It is true that many Islamic extremist plots are now uncovered. It is also true that our support, while wide, is shallow.
"But our enemies appear still to think this is a war of bombs and bullets, instead of ideas. Remember this: Our task is not to win. Our task is to build an army of believers."
To see the possible gap in perceptions, some experts point to the video of Osama bin Laden that surfaced in recent days.
In the tape, Mr. bin Laden, among other things, rejected capitalism, criticized the political moves of the US Democratic party, and urged Americans to adopt Islam if they want an end to the war in Iraq.
In Western media much time and space has been devoted to analyzing the appearance of the terrorist leader himself, notes author and former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer. Was his black beard – which was obviously dyed – a sign of some sort? Did it mean his health was better, or worse?
But the debate on cable TV news might better have focused on bin Laden urging Americans to embrace Islam, says Mr. Scheuer.
In the US, that rhetoric might be rejected as silly; in the Islamic world, it could be seen as an offer that goes the extra mile. It might allow bin Laden to later say that he did all he could before he launched further attacks.
"From their perspective the world is going their way. It was a very confident speech," says Scheuer, a former chief of the CIA's Osama bin Laden tracking unit.
According to the recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the terrorist threat to the US homeland, Americans will face a "persistent and evolving terrorist threat over the next three years," driven mainly by Al Qaeda and associated cells.
Al Qaeda's leadership continues to plan high-impact plots, according to US intelligence, and will likely push harder to place operatives in the US.
"We assess the group has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability, including: a safehaven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), operational lieutenants, and its top leadership," reads the NIE.
But the fact that as yet there have been no further attacks on US soil does say something about US defensive efforts, according to top officials.
"It is not the case that the enemy has not tried to attack us over the last several years," said Secretary of Homeland Michael Chertoff at a Sept. 10 Senate hearing. "We have disrupted plots in our own country."
Secretary Chertoff pointed to recent arrests that derailed alleged plots against Fort Dix, in New Jersey, and John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City.
While it is true that Al Qaeda has rebuilt a central infrastructure in the isolated Pakistani tribal areas, that infrastructure does not match that which existed prior to Sept. 11, 2001, say terrorism experts.
Training areas are more limited. Communications with the outside world are more difficult. The operational environment is much more hostile.
But Al Qaeda central still has operational committees, and a central ruling council.