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Signs that al-Qaeda is gaining a foothold in Iraq are ominous, not just for the future stability of Iraq but for the Bush Administration's wider war on terrorism. In the two years since the attacks on New York City and Washington, the U.S. and its partners have wrought grave damage to Osama bin Laden's infrastructure of terror. The U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan destroyed al-Qaeda's training camps and scattered its operatives, while the international dragnet has rounded up more than 3,000 al-Qaeda members. Nearly every top pre--9/11 al-Qaeda leader other than bin Laden, his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri and his security chief Saif al-Adel has been captured or killed--including the network's Southeast Asia kingpin and the chief architect of the 9/11 attacks. And yet al-Qaeda's lethal ambitions, its capacity to reinvent itself and its pool of willing recruits remain inexhaustible. "Al-Qaeda isn't just surviving," says a top Pakistani intelligence officer. "From this region, it's planning new attacks all over the world, wherever it can strike." The Department of Homeland Security warned last week that al-Qaeda strategists are still aiming to pull off "synchronized attacks against U.S. interests"--including another attack on targets inside the U.S. involving commercial airliners hijacked in nearby countries. A senior federal law-enforcment official told TIME that U.S. intelligence believes multiple al-Qaeda operations are "already in the can" and that an attempted attack somewhere in the world is imminent.
Some counterterrorism experts believe bin Laden's network remains too diffuse to pull off another 9/11--style spectacular inside the U.S. Al-Qaeda today is less a hierarchical enterprise than a sprawling outfit comprising small, loosely affiliated Islamist groups working independently of one another. Even so, "individuals and small groups can prove deadly, especially in places where chaos reigns," says a French counterterrorism official. Places, in other words, like Iraq. U.S. and foreign intelligence officials believe the presence of 150,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq has emboldened Islamist radicals to dispatch their minions there in order to create a new theater for jihad.
In the eyes of budding terrorists, Iraq presents an opportunity to prove their mettle by driving a superpower out of the Muslim world, as bin Laden's cohort did to the Soviet army in Afghanistan in the 1980s. According to Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi security expert at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London, a majority of fundamentalist websites now list Iraq as the destination of choice for those interested in waging holy war for Islam, ahead of Palestine, Afghanistan and Chechnya. "It's an ideal environment," says Alani. "The cause of jihad is achievable in Iraq because you can hurt Americans easily and there is clear occupation."