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You don't hear such talk now. Experts are openly comparing Islamic terrorism to communism and fascism, ideologies that retained the loyalty of devotees despite occasional setbacks. "Al-Qaeda is not just an organization," says Ranstorp. "It's a movement. We shouldn't gauge its success through a short-term prism." It took a year, but recent attacks suggest that the dispersal of terrorists from Afghanistan back to their home bases reinvigorated local extremist groups--among them Jemaah Islamiah in Indonesia--with an influx of logistical and financial resources. That has Tenet worried. "The threat environment we face," he said last week, "is as bad as it was before Sept. 11. It is serious--they have reconstituted, they are coming after us." Al-Qaeda, U.S. intelligence has concluded, is able to plan an attack on the scale of the one seen a year ago. "They still have the capacity for a spectacular operation," says a U.S. counterterrorism official. "In fact, that's what we are expecting next, or in the near future. We don't have a clue where." Officials fear that such an attack could be launched against any one of a number of American cities. And they are particularly worried about attacks by "conventional" means against the chemical or nuclear infrastructure of the U.S., that would cause widespread toxic or radiological fallout.
The amount of "noise" counterterrorism sources are hearing from intercepted communications among terrorist groups has grown to levels last reached in the summer of 2001. Public pronouncements by al-Qaeda leaders--such as the Web statement purportedly made by bin Laden, a separate bin Laden audiotape played on the Qatari TV channel al Jazeera and another ostensibly from his second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri (U.S. authorities believe that the voice on the tape was indeed al-Zawahiri's)--have added to the tension. A senior State Department official believes that the messages by bin Laden and al-Zawahiri may amount to the starting gun for a fresh campaign. Saad al Fagih, a Saudi dissident based in London, says those in circles close to al-Qaeda talk these days with "strange confidence" about a second big attack against the U.S. "Before Sept. 11, bin Laden would talk in general terms about a major attack coming and a major, major attack following," says al Fagih. "He would say, 'The first attack is going to be this size,' pointing to the tip of his finger, 'and the next is going to be this size,' indicating the whole length of his finger."