Six years after the attacks of Sept. 11, the terrorist group that struck those blows has transformed into a resilient and still deadly organization.
US intelligence judges that extremist Islamic jihadists remain a persistent and evolving threat. Al Qaeda's central leadership has rebuilt, while a ring of loosely affiliated terror franchises have arisen in Europe, Asia, and Africa, according to official estimates.
But to the terrorists themselves the most important thing may be that they simply exist. Their view of the struggle may be very different from the West's.
"To us, war is a finite undertaking with a clear beginning and a clear end," says Brian Jenkins, a senior adviser to the president of RAND Corp. in Arlington, Va. "To our jihadist foes, war is a perpetual condition."
For instance, if Al Qaeda's central leaders have their own version of an intelligence assessment of their current standing in the world, it might go something like this:
"Dear brothers – the good news is that we have survived the mightiest blows the infidel West can deliver. Our central infrastructure is being rebuilt in Pakistan under the operational leadership of deputy emir Ayman al-Zawahiri.
"Western intelligence credits us with an attack every other month. But from our point of view, the important thing is not the attacks themselves, but what they reveal about who we have inspired. We even have European nationals now clamoring for small-arms and explosives training.
"It is true that many Islamic extremist plots are now uncovered. It is also true that our support, while wide, is shallow.
"But our enemies appear still to think this is a war of bombs and bullets, instead of ideas. Remember this: Our task is not to win. Our task is to build an army of believers."
To see the possible gap in perceptions, some experts point to the video of Osama bin Laden that surfaced in recent days.
In the tape, Mr. bin Laden, among other things, rejected capitalism, criticized the political moves of the US Democratic party, and urged Americans to adopt Islam if they want an end to the war in Iraq.
In Western media much time and space has been devoted to analyzing the appearance of the terrorist leader himself, notes author and former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer. Was his black beard – which was obviously dyed – a sign of some sort? Did it mean his health was better, or worse?
But the debate on cable TV news might better have focused on bin Laden urging Americans to embrace Islam, says Mr. Scheuer.
In the US, that rhetoric might be rejected as silly; in the Islamic world, it could be seen as an offer that goes the extra mile. It might allow bin Laden to later say that he did all he could before he launched further attacks.
"From their perspective the world is going their way. It was a very confident speech," says Scheuer, a former chief of the CIA's Osama bin Laden tracking unit.
According to the recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the terrorist threat to the US homeland, Americans will face a "persistent and evolving terrorist threat over the next three years," driven mainly by Al Qaeda and associated cells.
Al Qaeda's leadership continues to plan high-impact plots, according to US intelligence, and will likely push harder to place operatives in the US.
"We assess the group has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability, including: a safehaven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), operational lieutenants, and its top leadership," reads the NIE.
But the fact that as yet there have been no further attacks on US soil does say something about US defensive efforts, according to top officials.
"It is not the case that the enemy has not tried to attack us over the last several years," said Secretary of Homeland Michael Chertoff at a Sept. 10 Senate hearing. "We have disrupted plots in our own country."
Secretary Chertoff pointed to recent arrests that derailed alleged plots against Fort Dix, in New Jersey, and John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City.
While it is true that Al Qaeda has rebuilt a central infrastructure in the isolated Pakistani tribal areas, that infrastructure does not match that which existed prior to Sept. 11, 2001, say terrorism experts.
Training areas are more limited. Communications with the outside world are more difficult. The operational environment is much more hostile.
But Al Qaeda central still has operational committees, and a central ruling council.
Osama bin Laden himself has not attended this council in two years, says Bruce Hoffman, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University. Instead, it is run by his long-time deputy, Mr. Zawahiri.
Zawahiri now has placed key allies in charge of such crucial missions as communications with the outside world. He has engineered affiliations with radical Islamic groups in Algeria and elsewhere.
"He has become the driving force behind Al Qaeda, and is probably content that we are still obsessed with Osama bin Laden," says Mr. Hoffman.
Al Qaeda's rebuilt organizational capacity may be revealed by the recent arrests in Germany that alledgedly derailed a plot to bomb US-related targets.
Some of those arrested, including at least one native-born German, had traveled to Pakistan for basic terrorists training, according to German officials.
"A bunch of Germans don't just find their way to Pakistani training camps [without help]," says Hoffman.
But in the end, Al Qaeda's leadership may be most focused on the long term. Its biggest concern may not be with attacks per se, and their failure or success, but in spreading its ideas and maintaining ideological zeal among believers, says Brian Jenkins of RAND.
Measurements of progress don't matter, in this view. War is life.
For Al Qaeda, "this is a struggle against evil that it will continue until that evil is eliminated or judgment day, whichever comes first," says Jenkins, who has studied extensively the group's internal ideology.
Yet Islam's historical weakness has been lack of unity, and this is something the group's leaders constantly talk about among themselves. They may be worried about the depth of their support.
"They can inspire handfuls of young men to take a destructive ... course of action. But there is no mass response to their exhortations," says Jenkins.
How Al Qaeda sees itself
Following are excerpts from three experts who have for years tracked Osama bin Laden and his formation of the Al Qaeda network. Michael Scheuer headed the Osama bin Laden unit, set up in the early 1990s, at the Central Intelligence Agency. While working there, he wrote "Through Our Enemies Eyes," a book that analyzed everything Mr. bin Laden said over several years and looked at how he structured the Al Qaeda network before 9/11. Brian Jenkins, author of "Unconquerable Nation," which delves into the subject of terrorism, has served as an adviser on terrorism to governments and government agencies for decades and is a senior adviser to the president of RAND Corp. in Washington. In December 2003, he headed a team exercise for the Defense Department that looked at Al Qaeda from the inside out. Bruce Hoffman, formerly with RAND, is author of "Inside Terrorism." He is currently a professor of security studies at Georgetown University in Washington.
Where does Al Qaeda stand today?
Mr. Scheuer: Al Qaeda is very good at replacing lost leaders. People say they rebuilt. I really question how much damage we did to them. I'm not taking anything away from the intelligence services, the special forces that went in there, but Osama bin Laden is clearly capable of replacing them and Al Qaeda is not an organization small enough that we can bring them to justice one man at a time.
I think they may be as potent as before 9/11. There's a whole new tier – a new level of threat from people they've inspired.... That's a tremendous victory for bin Laden because he said all along, "I can't do this by myself or Al Qaeda can't do it by itself. Our main job is not fighting, killing; it's inspiring." Apparently that's working. There have been attacks in Spain, Britain, Germany, Denmark, Canada, Italy,... Algeria, Morocco, [and] in Lebanon now.
Mr. Jenkins: Actually, if you look at their communications, they are increasing in frequency, and they are increasingly improving in production value. The lag time between current events that are referred to on the tapes and their issuance used to be in terms of weeks or even of a couple of months. Now it's down to a few days. [Ayman al] Zawahiri or someone else can comment upon it – and that tape can be put together and delivered within a few days. That confirms not only that they are monitoring world events, which they can do easily with the radio, but they have sufficient confidence in their communications and the security of those communications that they can deliver these on a regular basis without fear that it will compromise the security of the top leadership itself.
What's the role of Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's No. 2?
Mr. Hoffman: Al Qaeda is back to having a command-and-control center, and I think Zawahiri runs it, not Osama bin Laden. Osama bin Laden has been wheeled out once every two or three years for this very theatrical statement. He is still of enormous symbolic importance, but Zawahiri I think is exercising day-to-day command. He has overseen the reorganization and regrouping [of Al Qaeda] after the setbacks in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002. For sure, it's a smaller version of itself with fewer camps or training facilities. But it still has the committees; it still has a Majlis Ashura [its ruling council], which Osama bin Laden hasn't attended in two years.
Scheuer: Zawahiri is not a terribly popular man within the organization. He's not an easy man to like – very abrasive. Egyptians as a whole are not easy to like by other Arabs. They lord it over the Arab world because of their 4,000-year-old history.
What is Al Qaeda's view of the US?
Scheuer: The message has been consistent for more than a decade now.... [Bin Laden is] confident they're winning. He points out that America is hurting economically. We're in bad shape in Iraq, bad shape in Afghanistan. He directly tried to deepen the divisiveness in this country's political affairs. [He said] Democrats failed to do what they said they would after they were elected.
Lots of people are saying there was no threat in the tape; I'm not sure that is true. [Bin Laden] spent more time than before talking about how this war could be ended by conversion. People ... say that is stupid. [But] his audience is often the Muslim world, and his offering us a chance to convert is telling Muslims he ... went the extra mile. [He is] building up the ability for the Muslim world to be able to say he did all he could before he attacked.
Jenkins: We're in a national debate here about where we are in this thing, and we do have to keep in mind that we view things very differently from them. To us, war is a finite undertaking with a clear beginning and a clear end. To our jihadist foes, war is a perpetual condition, as bin Laden himself put it in one of his addresses. This clashing began centuries ago and will continue until Judgment Day – or, as one of his operational planners who is now in custody (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) put it more succinctly: War is life. With that kind of view, they have no need for the kind of timetables that we think about. Moreover, we are a nation of pragmatists, and we want to know what is the return on our investment. If that investment is in blood, the young lives of our men and women, or if we are investing the public treasure, devoting a great deal of effort to this, [we want to know]: "What is the return: What are we getting for this investment?" Those types of concerns about metrics, measures of progress, don't really occur to our jihadist foes for whom fighting itself is an obligation. For them, this conflict is process-oriented not progress-oriented.
What does Al Qaeda have to fear?
Jenkins: The operational environment for them is a lot more hostile. Over the longer term, they may have concerns that their decentralized organization may not suffice to sustain their terrorist campaign. They constantly worry about the loss of unity: That is a recurring theme in their communications. United, they believe they can be victorious. But the historical weakness of Islam has been the lack of unity, so they constantly talk about this.
They worry about Muslims turning against indiscriminate violence, and there's been some discussion about that in their communications. Despite their continuing efforts to galvanize Islam, there has been nothing approaching mass uprisings or demonstrations on their behalf, so their support is shallow. They can inspire handfuls of young men to take a destructive and self-destructive course of action. But there is no mass response to their exhortations....
The biggest concern they have, underscored by their communications, is loss of relevance as the world moves on. That is the fate of organizations like that. Terrorist campaigns don't end with the captures of every high-level terrorist in the organization or of formal surrenders. For example, the Red faction in Germany. They were still sending messages in the 1990s. The Red Brigades [active in Italy during the 1970s] were still sending missives. When we are up to the 200th message of Zawahiri, no one will care. They may be locked in their own little universe of discourse where they become irrelevant to world events. We're not there yet. But to them, that's a fate worse than – well, martyrdom would be welcome. Irrelevancy would be the worst fate.