People were letting down their guard. Some of the Westerners who lived in the high-walled compounds of Riyadh told themselves the terror threat was cooling now that the war in Iraq was over and the U.S. was pulling most of its troops out of Saudi Arabia. Tourists in Casablanca thought the place was safe for their Bogie-and-Bergman fantasies.
After all, just a week before George W. Bush had boasted to the world that "al-Qaeda is on the run." And with that, it seems, al-Qaeda struck: four synchronized suicide attacks in Riyadh one of them shattering a late-night outdoor barbecue bash killed at least 34 and wounded almost 200, just hours before U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell landed in Saudi Arabia. By the time Powell moved on to Moscow for a meeting with Vladimir Putin, two devastating suicide bombings in the Russian republic of Chechnya had left more than 70 dead and hundreds wounded. And before Powell got back to Washington, five kamikaze attacks had torn Casablanca apart, taking more than 41 innocent lives.
And so a comforting mirage the idea that the swift, successful end of the war in Iraq had somehow made the world safer from terrorism shimmered and vanished. In its place were familiar fears and cold new lessons. The British government suspended all flights between Kenya and the U.K., and even before the Morocco bombing issued new travel advisories for East Africa. Europeans watching the march of terror from Riyadh and Chechnya to Casablanca couldn't help but notice that the trail of bombs seemed to be heading their way. Americans who'd been reassured by Bush's brash declaration that half of al-Qaeda's leadership was dead or in jail realized that taking out the leaders is not the same as stopping the army the estimated 20,000 jihadists trained in Afghan camps since 1996. (About 2,000 of them have been killed or jailed, according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.)
It hardly matters whether bin Laden is still issuing orders to them from some mountain lair; the jihadists and their local commanders know what to do go after soft targets in places where the Islamic and Western worlds meet. The jihadists aren't so much an army as a virus an outbreak that long ago spread beyond all possibility of containment, one that feeds on the irreconcilable differences between Islamist and secular worlds. The war in Iraq could never have stopped this virus displays of American might can only help it grow and pulling American troops out of Saudi Arabia won't, either. Epidemics don't negotiate. Which leaves the West feeling a bit less cocky than it did two weeks ago.
"Is this to be in any way tolerated?" Colin Powell asked last week. "Is this to be in any way justified? What kind of world do we become?" What follows is a special report about a world still and, it seems, permanently at war.