The terror group already had an army of extremist fighters. It had an economy, too, as its leader ran everything from a Middle East construction firm to a sesame farm in the Sudan.
Then in the 1990s, Osama bin Laden decided that Al Qaeda ("The base") needed something more: foreign allies. Federal prosecutors allege that throughout the decade, Al Qaeda leaders worked on a three-way alliance with the Islamic Front of Sudan and elements of the Iranian government.
This terrorist "NATO" may have never really solidified. But the mere fact that Mr. bin Laden planned it shows the breadth of his ambition, say US officials.
In his quest to wage jihad, or holy war, against the United States, bin Laden may have constructed something that is bigger than a guerrilla group and more complex than a multinational corporation. Call it a virtual country - the Republic of Jihadistan.
"It has statelike aspects, but without state borders," says Richard Rosecrance, an expert on terrorism at the University of California at Berkeley.
This does not mean that bin Laden has replaced the Soviet Union - or even Iraq - on the scale of dangers to American national interests. Personifying extremist threats in one individual, as the media and some US officials are prone to do, undoubtedly exaggerates that person's influence and power.
Nor is Al Qaeda's loosely organized, ideologically motivated network unprecedented in Western history. A century ago, a dedicated transnational terrorist group - anarchists - wreaked havoc around the globe, notes Gideon Rose, deputy director of national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Between 1894 and 1901, anarchists assassinated the president of France, the prime minister of Spain, the empress of Austria, the king of Italy, and William McKinley, president of the United States.
"We've all forgotten just how successful they were," says Mr. Rose. "Imagine how worked up we'd be if some group knocked off so many heads of state today."
But bin Laden's network appears to represent the coming thing in the age of modern terrorism. The sponsorship of terror groups by geographical states such as Syria and Libya appears to be on the decline. Their place is being taken by virtual states such as Al Qaeda, which have little physical infrastructure to attack and less in the way of safe harbors against which economic sanctions can be effective.
The head of the US National Security Agency has publicly complained that Al Qaeda's sophisticated use of the Internet and encryption techniques have defied Western eavesdropping attempts. Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet told Congress this month that bin Laden and his network are the nation's most immediate and serious transnational threat.
And officials remain worried that bin Laden's network will link with other networks to become a terrorist Warsaw Pact. A recent CIA study of the world of 2015 concluded that while it is not the most likely future, it is possible that "the trend towards more diverse, free-wheeling transnational terrorist networks [will lead] to the formation of an international terrorist coalition with diverse anti-Western objectives and access to Weapons of Mass Destruction."
Bin Laden's Jihadistan has been under particular scrutiny in recent days due to the ongoing trial in New York of four of his alleged followers on charges that they conspired to bomb the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998.
The government's first witness in the trial, a man named Jamal Ahmed Al-Fadl, who describes himself as a former Al Qaeda paymaster, has painted a vivid and detailed picture of bin Laden's organization.
He has described the organization's former headquarters in Khartoum, Sudan, where bin Laden had the first office on the left and office work went on like anyplace in the world - except it dealt with such things as the purchase of clandestine passports and the purchase of uranium and elements of chemical weapons.
Silicon Valley dotcoms offer workers cappuccino and game rooms. Al Qaeda offered bonuses in the form of office deliveries of sugar, tea, and cooking oil. "Sometimes they busy. They can't go shopping," said Mr. Al-Fadl.
The alleged bin Laden insider also described the organization's nascent foreign policy. Al Qaeda had relations with a number of different terrorist organizations, he said, including some in Lebanon, Libya, Yemen, Syria, the Philippines, and Chechnya.
The rise in Israeli-Palestinian violence is providing the bin Laden group an opportunity to further broaden its reach, say experts. At a conference in Beirut this week, bin Laden representatives joined with followers of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other extremist groups and pledged to work to expel all non-Muslims from Jerusalem.
"It was a meeting of the minds," says David Schenker of the Washington Institute of Near East Policy. "Traditionally bin Laden's No. 1 issue has been expelling Americans from the Gulf, but he is willing to work with [other branches of Islam] in the short term."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society