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No one hoped he was caught more than George W. Bush. A picture of al-Qaeda's second in command dead or in chains would give a boost to the President's insistence that, even as chaos mounted in Iraq and the world reverberated from the shock of the commuter-train bombings in Madrid, the U.S. is winning the war on terrorism. With Bush's election campaign picking up speed, the stakes for finding al-Zawahiri and bin Laden have never been higher, especially now that terrorist forces seem to have developed a keen eye for political calendars. The Islamists charged with slaughtering more than 200 Madrid commuters struck on March 11. Three days later Spanish voters tossed out the ruling party allied with the U.S. in the war in Iraq. Incoming Socialist Party Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who called the Iraq occupation a "fiasco," reiterated a campaign promise to pull Spain's 1,300 peacekeepers out of Iraq by June unless the U.N. takes over operations there. In Iraq insurgents attacked several hotels on the eve of the war's first anniversary, just when the U.S. hoped to talk up Iraq's successes. The bombings were believed to be the work of Islamic extremists eager to plunge the country into chaos before the June 30 deadline for handing authority back to Iraqis.
The sweep of death and destruction gave fresh evidence of how the Islamist terrorist threat has managed to survive the global war waged against it. New networks of jihadists emerge faster than the U.S. and its allies can arrest or kill them. Counterterrorism experts believe that the old al-Qaeda organization commanded by bin Laden may be expiring and that a new, more elusive generation of extremists apparently inspired by al-Qaeda's ruthless vision--men like Jamal Zougam, 30, a cell-phone salesman arrested for the Madrid bombings, and Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, 37, the Jordanian suspected of orchestrating violence in Iraq--has taken up the banner. Barely recognizable even to officials who make a living tracking terrorists, the new jihadists proved in Madrid that they can evade detection while they hatch their plots. And no one knows where they will strike next.
THE SPANISH CONNECTION
Nobody thought Islamic terrorism would happen in Spain. Much of Europe is known to be a logistical base for the militants but rarely a theater of operations. "We knew there were Islamist networks in Spain, even knew who most of the people involved were," says a French counterterrorism investigator. "But we had no idea these networks and cells were operational in planning and staging attacks."