Al Qaeda foot soldiers seem to be everywhere. They are now claiming responsibility for the Saturday bombing in Saudi Arabia. They say they are flocking into Iraq to fight the US "occupation." They claim they were behind the massive power failure in the northeast quadrant of the US this past summer. Some may even have penetrated Camp Delta at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, which houses Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners.
Are they really capable of pulling off all these deeds? Or is it just what they'd like everyone to believe?
Several experts and government officials say it may be part of a concerted strategy of deception and denial.
After years of watching Al Qaeda's operations, they say one of the group's signatures is to be enigmatic - sowing enough uncertainty that it looks as if they're behind every misdeed - thus keeping their pursuers off balance.
"This suits their purposes very well on a number of different levels," says Bruce Hoffman, an expert on terror at the RAND Corp.
For one thing, the claims throw officials off. While the US ties up its resources and energy in Iraq, for example, Al Qaeda may be conducting operations - like the bombing in Saudi Arabia - in other countries, or planning another spectacular attack in the US. The "who did it" scenarios occupy authorities in endless debates over whether a hard-core Al Qaeda leadership is directing all the attacks, or whether it's loosely associated groups acting on their own, or freelancers responding to the call to join a jihad.
For example, it's still not clear that Al Qaeda was behind the attacks in Saudi Arabia, nor if they're all that active in Iraq.
"We haven't seen anything definite that [Al Qaeda]" is behind the attacks in Saudi Arabia, says a senior intelligence official. He adds that it is unusual for Al Qaeda to attack only other Arabs, as was the case in the Riyadh bombing on Saturday.
Moreover, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of US forces in Iraq, said earlier this week that up to 20 people had been detained in Iraq on suspicion of links to Al Qaeda. But he also said they don't have proof of those links.
The officials and experts say that's what Al Qaeda wants - the US totally focused on Iraq, so it isn't paying attention to what the leadership is doing. "For [Osama bin Laden], the final battle won't be fought in Baghdad," says Mr. Hoffman. "It will be fought in New York or Washington."
While intelligence officials - including the directors of both the FBI and CIA - continue to warn of another catastrophic attack in the US, they also claim to be making progress against the nefarious network. Officials say two-thirds of Al Qaeda's leadership has been captured or killed, and some 3,000 foot soldiers have been detained in nearly 100 countries. They've also cut into the network's finances.
"I think they are able to do some spectacular thing against the US," says Gunter Mulack, a longtime German ambassador to various Middle East countries and now serving in a special role as commissioner for dialogue with Islamic nations. "But the US has set up so many restrictions that it would be much more difficult now. Also, there would not be the surprise element as there was on Sept. 11."
Still, attacks in other countries continue. And officials and outside experts alike persist in puzzling over the group's makeup and intentions. For example, more than two years after the strikes on New York and Washington, there is not a full picture of how and where the attacks were planned and who possibly aided the terrorists here in the US. Nor is there a complete view of the Al Qaeda leadership.
"Before Sept. 11, we thought they were a loosely knit group of decentralized people that cooperated at different times for different reasons," says the senior intelligence official. "But after 9/11, we decided they had a hierarchical structure organized like the Kremlin. Now we're swinging back the other way to say it is a rather decentralized group."
"Nobody knows the exact structures and substructures of Al Qaeda," concurs Dr. Mulack.
Much of the confusion lies in the deceptive tactics Mr. bin Laden employed while creating his network in the 1980s and early '90s. Hailed as a hero for aiding the Afghan eviction of the Soviets, he was able to travel much of the Muslim world and, unbeknownst to the West, lay the groundwork for a terror group that for the first time would transcend national borders. Up to this time, no terrorist group had existed without an explicit state sponsor, says an intelligence official and the anonymous author of "Through Our Enemies' Eyes."
Moreover, the use of deceptive tactics - both organizationally and tactically in the field - continued throughout the US campaign to evict the Taliban and Al Qaeda from Afghanistan. In a report published by the US Army War College, Stephen Biddle shows examples of how Al Qaeda fighters outwitted the West, using techniques no one believed them capable of employing.
"In the fighting north of Kandahar and along Highway 4 in December , Al Qaeda defenses were well-camouflaged, dispersed, and making use of natural terrain for expedient cover," writes Dr. Biddle. "This pattern continued through Operation Anaconda in March, by which time Al Qaeda forces were practicing systematic communications security, dispersal, camouflage discipline, use of cover and concealment, and exploitation of dummy fighting positions to draw fire and attention from their real dispositions."
Because of this and other well-developed gambits, some officials believe the US needs to make sure it doesn't get distracted by Iraq and forget the threat posed by Al Qaeda. "We should focus much more on this issue," says Ambassador Mulack.