The targets beyond Afghanistan
With the Taliban largely routed, the threat is now from Al Qaeda cells elsewhere that may already have plans.
Ten weeks into a new war against terrorism, battlefield and law-enforcement successes have helped America make discernible progress toward its main goal: preemption of further terrorist attack.
But cracking the Taliban's hold on Afghanistan is not the same thing as destroying the operational capabilities of its Al Qaeda allies. It was just the first step in what US officials have long promised will be a lengthy and complicated campaign.
Up next: redoubled pursuit of forward-deployed Al Qaeda operational cells in the US, Western Europe, Africa, and perhaps Asia. This next phase may be less visible than the first, as US intelligence digests and then acts upon crucial information unearthed in Afghan victories.
"There are lots of cells around the world," says retired CIA counterterrorism expert Stanley Bedlington. "They may not have the logistical support or some of the money [they used to], but they are still active."
The apparent rout of the Taliban in Afghanistan has, in essence, deprived Osama bin Laden's Terror Inc. of its corporate headquarters. Bombs have destroyed its training bases, which allegedly hosted a number of the hijackers involved in the Sept. 11 attacks on the US at various points in their lives.
The loss of Mohammed Atef, Al Qaeda's top military commander, to a laser-guided bomb has shorn the group of decades of knowledge about planning terrorist actions. If the training grounds were corporate headquarters, then Atef was the chief operating officer - and his expertise was such that he is unlikely to be easy to replace.
Hundreds of other Al Qaeda fighters have died in Afghanistan, too, though the exact figure isn't known. Even more have fled to Pakistan - including, perhaps, Mr. bin Laden.
All this marks a significant degradation of the terror group's abilities, note experts.
"The Al Qaeda in Afghanistan cannot interfere with or injure or kill any Americans," says J. Kelly McCann, president of the Fredericksburg, Va.-based Crucible Security Specialists and a former special-operations special missions officer. "Afghanistan is basically neutralized."
The threat to the US now, notes Mr. McCann, comes from preexisting Al Qaeda cells - perhaps with preexisting plans.
US and allied law-enforcement officials have already had some success in pursuing these farther-flung terrorist activists. Spanish officials, for instance, revealed this week that they have arrested eight men, mostly Arabs living in Spain, allegedly linked to the Sept. 11 plots.
The arrests in Spain followed the revelation by German officials that they have identified five people who they believe supported the activities of a key hijacker, Mohamed Atta, when he lived in Hamburg. The suspects are under tight surveillance, said German authorities, and will be unable to flee.
US officials believe that the link between Al Qaeda activities in Germany and those in Spain could be a crucial one, and that they have identifed cells that functioned in essence as regional headquarters.
"The steps we've taken overseas have disrupted their network," says military analyst Jack Spencer of the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "You read about how we have prevented certain events from happening. That means we are disrupting them."
But that doesn't mean Al Qaeda is defeated. Far from it. The task now is to roll up the forward-deployed networks that central and regional Al Qaeda headquarters once controlled.
"The danger is still there, very much so," says Mr. Bedlington.
Still at large, for instance, is Ramzi Binalshibh, a man whom FBI Director Robert Mueller has identified as perhaps the "20th hijacker," meant to fill out the planned complement of five operatives on United Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania.
Mr. Binalshibh, a citizen of Yemen, has been described as something akin to Atta's right-hand man. He lived and worked with Atta in Germany after arriving there in 1997.
Binalshibh applied to flight-training school in Florida, but was unable to secure a visa to enter the US. He dropped from sight in Germany in the chaotic days after Sept. 11.
Yemen is one place Binalshibh could well have fled. It is both his and bin Laden's homeland, and could become a front of the US war on terrorism in the near-to-medium future.
Indonesia is another possible destination. US officials have speculated publicly on the need to pay attention to alleged terrorist camps in that most-populous of Muslim countries. In Spain, media reports have linked the men arrested there to Indonesian camps, which have reportedly trained upward of 3,000 fighters.
It's unlikely the US and its allies will ever round up every Al Qaeda operative - not to mention those of other terrorist organizations. The best outcome, says Mr. Spencer, might be the establishment of a "new post-cold-war deterrence," in which no nation willingly harbors terrorists, for fear of US action.
Special correspondent Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.