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Cooperation with foreign-intelligence and law-enforcement authorities is key; since Sept 11, 2001, a total of 2,974 terror suspects have been detained in 98 countries. Americans have learned to use local assets, like the Filipino agents who disguise themselves as ice-cream vendors or beauticians, to track down terrorists. "The feeling here," says a senior French investigator, "is that the Americans are doing an excellent job in police and intelligence terms." Not everything goes according to plan. High-tech listening devices are of no use if nobody sends an electronic message. "The bad guys," says a Western diplomat in Islamabad, "have been taught that talking on cell phones or sat phones is a no-no. Now they are delivering messages on motorcycles." Raids on Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan aimed at finding al-Qaeda men have been compromised by leaks from local police and intelligence services. And--as happened earlier this month in an operation at the Shemshahtoi camp outside Peshawar--even if the FBI and their local friends get into a camp, suspects can easily vanish among the maze of adobe huts, which teem with thousands of Afghans who hate the police. In a similar raid on the Jalousai camp, 12 miles from Peshawar, however, the feds were luckier, picking up four Afghans who were al-Qaeda suspects, plus a trove of sat phones and computer diskettes.
Still, a few phones and some computer files are not sufficient to stop a ruthless enemy whose reputation among its supporters soared after the destruction of the World Trade Center. With such a display of power, whether bin Laden is alive or not is beside the point. "For the militant groups in the Islamic world, it is the ideology that counts, not a specific leader," says Hala Mustafa of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "The roots of fanaticism will still be there."
Will those roots be watered by a war with Iraq? Optimists within the Bush Administration argue that the removal of Saddam Hussein would open a space for the development of true democracy across the Arab world, one that would offer for the first time a real choice between corrupt authoritarian regimes on the one hand and millennial Islamic extremists on the other. But many experts are skeptical. French officials otherwise wholly supportive of the U.S. are worried that, as one puts it, "some of the headway made against Islamists is lost by American diplomacy that has alienated most of the Muslim world." It is not that the extremists love Saddam. "Frankly," says a French source, "they don't give a s___ about Iraq, and they openly disdain Saddam as corrupt. But anything that happens in Iraq will just be used as further justification for terrorism." But if American soldiers are welcomed as warmly in Baghdad as they were by the people of Kabul, the effect of a war on the recruitment of terrorists might be different.