(4 of 6)
It's an apt and frightening image: the emergence of a raw, repulsive killer when the environmental conditions are ripe. Al-Qaeda rose to prominence by throwing its deadly mantle over various Islamic terrorist groups--in places like the Philippines, Uzbekistan, Algeria--whose principal mission had been directed against local governments. Bin Laden provided an ideological justification, rooted in a superfundamentalist Islamic doctrine, for inter-nationalizing those conflicts. Al-Qaeda's alliance with the Taliban in Afghanistan enabled it to establish camps where terror-craft could be taught and operational teams assembled. And al-Qaeda's access to substantial flows of cash, mainly from Saudi Arabia and the other gulf states, allowed it to act as a banker for local groups. This meshing of interests and cooperation was evident in the Bali bombings last year, in which local Indonesian Islamic extremists, some of whom had trained in Afghanistan, attacked Western targets in a plot funded at least partially by al-Qaeda.
--HOW BIG A THREAT?
Is al-Qaeda as powerful as it once was, more than a year and a half after Sept. 11? Is it still a threat to America? The answers are: no and yes. Improvements in security and surveillance mean it would be much harder for the organization to pull off a long-planned, complex, relatively expensive operation in the West like the one that occurred on Sept. 11. There are also better controls on the international flow of funds to terrorist groups. But al-Qaeda, says Roland Jacquard, a well-known French expert on terrorism, doesn't need as much money as it once did. "What cost al-Qaeda millions," he says, "was the camps. The group doesn't have the same financial needs as it did before." The Bali bombing cost perhaps $35,000 to pull off, a sum easily gathered from the credit-card fraud and petty-crime networks that certain Islamist extremists run.
It also is clear that the destruction of the Afghan camps, however useful, had one perverse and unintended effect. Terrorists and their supporters who had formerly been concentrated in one known place were dispersed to home regions and new hideouts like Chechnya, Yemen, East Africa and Georgia's Pankisi Gorge. Regional commanders of al-Qaeda, says Rohan Gunaratna, author of a leading book on the network, are now "operating independently of centralized control." Local terrorist chiefs, he says, no longer depend on anything from bin Laden and his top brass except for ideological inspiration.
How bin Laden's message resonates these days is unclear. In the run-up to the war in Iraq, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak predicted--and many in the West concurred--that the fighting would spawn many acts of terrorism. "If there is one bin Laden now," he said, "there will be 100 bin Ladens afterward." That phenomenon has not materialized. In some countries with volatile Islamic communities, like Indonesia, demonstrations against the war were far smaller than many had expected. A French investigator says anger among Islamic communities over Iraq won't necessarily translate into a surge in terrorism-organization membership. "Recruitment involves risks of infiltration for networks," he says. "The Arab kid who walks into a mosque after the first bombing of Baghdad and says he wants to work for al-Qaeda is exactly the sort of guy they want no part of."