A thousand years ago, a small Islamic sect called the Assassins used suicide attacks to terrorize Arab leaders and European crusaders for more than two centuries. The Assassins defied their enemies until a massive Mongol army wiped out their castle stronghold in the mountains of northern Persia.
The elusive Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden, who is in some ways a modern-day Assassin, is being increasingly identified as the architect of Tuesday's attacks on the US. Like the ancient sect, he vows to evict foreigners from the Middle East and favors mountain hideaways. Without specifically referring to Mr. bin Laden, Secretary of State Colin Powell promised Wednesday to launch a "multifaceted attack on many dimensions ... to bring this scourge [of terrorism] under control."
But analysts say that an American duplication of the Mongols' success will not be easy. If bin Laden is, indeed, the source of the attacks, US retribution is likely to be geographically complex and replete with risks that could lead to a wider war.
The main problem is that bin Laden is the head not of a country, or even a fortress, but of a network of hard-to-find militants and cells in the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and North America. The only nation that can be convincingly said to support him is Afghanistan, the war-torn, destitute country where he has lived since 1996.
"If [the attacks on the US] are linked directly to Osama bin Laden, the Afghans will be given an ultimatum to deliver him," says Mustafa Hamarneh, director of the Center for Strategic Studies in Jordan. "If they don't, the Americans and their allies will consider military action."
Afghanistan's leadership - the hardline Islamic Taliban militia - has already appealed to the US not "to put Afghanistan into more misery because our people have suffered so much," in the words of one spokesman.
NATO has already invoked a treaty provision that would allow it to assist the US and President Bush, and other officials have indicated they intend to assemble a broad coalition to face America's nearly invisible enemy. "I think it will be a replay of the Gulf war," Mr. Hamarneh adds, "except that it will be easier for the US ... to get Arab and Muslim countries on board against bin Laden and the Taliban" than it was to orchestrate regional support against Iraq.
But if the diplomacy is simpler, the logistics are not. "There's a danger in everything," says John Cooley, a journalist and the author of the book "Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism." "Suppose this is a composite job, with experts recruited from other organizations coming from all different countries. How do you retaliate?"
Arrests and investigations in recent years have demonstrated that bin Laden's organization includes Algerians, Egyptians, Jordanians, Palestinians, Saudis, and Yemenis. Some of their nations are among the closest friends of the US in the Middle East. One of the suspects identified in Tuesday's attack is a Saudi national who was trained as an airline pilot, and two hijackers were brothers who held passports from the United Arab Emirates. Analysts say there could have been as many as 50 people involved in the planning.
The Afghans, stricken by decades of conflict and impoverished by years of drought, would have little to lose in defying the West. Bin Laden, on the other hand, is said to provide financial and other resources to the Taliban, an ostracized group whose rule is only recognized by three nations.
Invading or occupying the country would prove difficult - Afghanistan is a rugged land whose fighters have defeated the imperial ambitions of several invading armies, including the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Any large military operation against Afghanistan would require the help of neighboring Pakistan, whose military intelligence service helped to create and train the Taliban. This critical connection is one reason why US diplomats have been working overtime, huddling with Pakistani officials yesterday and the day before to gain firm commitments of support.
"The Taliban are not exactly in one place. They are spread [out] in Kabul and Kandahar," Mr. Cooley says. "It would be a very messy operation, tracking them all down - let alone bin Laden's gang."
"It's like a bunch of grapes. Pick one grape, and the bunch remains," says the Western intelligence officer. "Each is a segment unto itself, but they're talking with each other. They're training together. They're working together for the same causes. Yet there's a protection in being separate."
Bin Laden is known to live with as many as 300 others in a sprawling housing complex in the southern Kandahar province. According to the Associated Press, several reports began to appear Wednesday that Arabs were moving out of the complex. Meanwhile, several Arab families in Kabul have been seen loading their belongings into vehicles and leaving.
There is little sympathy from bin Laden himself. An aide, who spoke by satellite telephone to Abu Dhabi television in Pakistan, quoted him as saying he had nothing to do with the attacks, which he said were "punishment from Allah."
For the moment, it seems that Afghanistan is No. One on the target list, simply by default. "It's very difficult to put your finger on a precise place where they can strike," says Esther Webmen, an Israeli historian who has recently studied bin Laden's organization, referring to those interested in retaliating for the attacks on the US. She adds: "Except Afghanistan."
Some American and Israeli analysts have speculated that Iraq may have assisted bin Laden, but the connection is unproven. "If they decide to go after Saddam Hussein as well, then we could have a big regional war on our hands," says Cooley.
The Russians have been supporting anti-Taliban Afghan guerrillas in the north for years, and new US support of this Northern Alliance with cash or other assistance could be part of the equation.
Any such support might recall Washington's covert backing of the Islamic mujahideen in Afghanistan. Backing of the Afghan fighters - bin Laden prominent among them - has resulted in years of instability there and in other countries.
Despite the proven risks of intervention, a military strike -and even US forces on the ground in Afghanistan -might receive only slight condemnation across the Islamic world, says Bashraheel Bashraheel, foreign editor of the Al-Ayyam newspaper in the port city of Aden, Yemen, where suicide bombers killed 17 American service personnel last October on an attack on the USS Cole. "Everybody here thinks that the Taliban has been harboring and protecting these guys for a long time, and that sooner or later the Taliban would be held responsible," says Mr. Bashraheel.
Jordan, Algeria and Yemen itself are all believed by Western intelligence sources to have bin Laden cells. But if no other nation is targeted, the view across the Arab world will be that any "punishment" will be deserved, he adds, "because the Taliban are so extreme."
"The idea of a worldwide coalition against terrorism is much better and more effective than one huge military strike, because these people are spread all around the world," adds Bashraheel. "Cutting off its head is not effective - it has to be a large, group effort by all countries to stop it."