There's been a tragic surge in international terrorism in recent days - from Chechens seizing a Russian school, to a renewal of tit-for-tat suicide bombings and assassinations in Israel and the continued killings of hostages and US troops in Iraq.
One of the most disturbing aspects of these attacks is that some may represent strategic escalation. Terrorists have targeted schools before, but never on the scale of last week's Russian disaster. Islamists have similarly increased the breadth of their violence against Iraqi targets.
But this doesn't mean the world has lost ground in a global war on terror. Indeed, this struggle may not be global, or even best described as "war," at all. The main fronts might instead be seen as separate hot spots, each on its own time cycle, each roiled by its own clashes of power and religion, each perhaps better fought in different ways. "The bottom line is they are not connected," says Bruce Hoffman, a terror expert at the RAND Corp. in Washington. "This has been a particularly bad two weeks."
Terrorism, after all, is not an ideology, such as communism. It is a technique - a tool that employs fear as a means of political coercion. At various times it's been used by anarchists (in the Balkans prior to World War I), anticolonialists (in the 1960s by Algerians in their war for independence from France), radical leftists (the Red Brigades of Europe in the 1970s) and today, increasingly, Islamists.
Its use rises and falls, like the tide. There were 175 significant terror events around the world in 2003, according to the most recent US State Department Patterns of Global Terrorism report. That is 37 more such incidents than occurred in 2002, but fewer than the annus horribilis of 2001.
Only 1.5 percent of terrorism's casualties in 2003 were US citizens. Ninety-eight and a half percent came from elsewhere in the world.
That "is a real indicator this is a global war," said Ambassador Cofer Black, coordinator for counterrorism, at a briefing for reporters earlier this year.
In Washington the battle against terrorism is often presented as a sweeping conflict with clearly defined sides, as if it were a new cold war. President George Bush last week called it a "struggle of historic proportions."
If that struggle is defined as the US vs. Al Qaeda, it is a far-flung war of sorts. Since the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in East Africa, the hydra-headed jihadist movement has exported fighters and expertise to indigenous guerrilla groups from the Philippines to Chechnya.
To these groups "Al Qaeda said you must not only fight your near enemy but a terrible distant enemy - the US," says Rohan Gunaratna, an expert on terror atthe Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore.
But the raison d'être for these groups remains their own political and social grievances, even for those with Al Qaeda ties. Thus Chechen separatists have carried out a violent battle for independence from Russia for years. Hamas is at heart a Muslim movement, but it has long forsworn attacks against US targets and concentrates its violence on Israelis, whom it sees as occupiers of Palestine.
"I think they're all discrete hot spots with their own issues," says Mr. Hoffman. "Inadvertently with the [phrase] 'global war on terrorism' we've done a lot of the linkage."
That said, the events of recent weeks indicate that terrorism may be evolving in negative ways. Whatever their motivations, the Chechen separatists have demonstrated a terrible capacity for rapid action - carrying out the simultaneous destruction of two airliners over Russia, and a suicide bombing in Moscow, followed by the seizure of schoolchildren in Beslan as hostages.
In the early 1970s, Palestinian terrorists commandeered a small schoolhouse in Israel, and South Moluccan terrorists seized a Dutch school in Indonesia. But even terrorists have generally avoided placing large numbers of children deliberately in danger - until now.
"They've got everybody in Russia thinking, 'What next?' " says Hoffman. "That's what terrorists want. It undermines confidence in the government, and creates an atmosphere of fear and alarm that they hope to manipulate into coercing people to accede to their demands."
But Hoffman adds that terrorists rarely understand their audience - as the Palestinian example so tragically shows.
After a period of relative calm, the sudden explosion of buses in Israel is likely to generate an intense crackdown by Israeli troops, as it did Tuesday with the airstrike in Gaza that killed 14 Hamas militants and wounded some 30 others.
Like sharks in the water, terrorist groups may just have to keep moving forward to survive.
"They've got to be seen to be doing something, not just prosecuting the struggle but escalating it in novel ways to achieve their ends," says Hoffman.
Mr. Gunaratna, for his part, believes that association with members of Al Qaeda has made the Chechen separatists and other groups more brutal. Their basic character, he believes, has changed.
Furthermore, the attacks of Sept. 11 may simply have raised the stakes for terrorists around the world.
"After 9/11 it [became] very important for terrorists to stage spectacular attacks, because they realized that attacking some small place would not get international media attention," says Gunaratna.