Terrorism: What Is Al-Qaeda Without Its Boss?

The answer: no matter what happens to bin Laden, the group still has many tentacles

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Which is one reason the Bush Administration will not ease its frantic domestic hunt for terrorists even after bin Laden and his lieutenants are caught. It's conceivable that a cell somewhere in the U.S. is just waiting for bin Laden to die so that it can unleash some bloody vengeance. Despite events in Afghanistan, the FBI believes al-Qaeda will try to strike a large gathering of Americans or a prominent U.S. site here or abroad. FBI counterterrorism officials are in Utah scrutinizing security for the Olympics in February.

FBI leaders have believed for weeks that any surviving players from the Sept. 11 attacks who had been in the U.S. fled the country shortly afterward. In fact, its investigators are most intensely interested in finding al-Qaeda operatives who were based not in the U.S. but in Germany--Said Bahaji, Ramzi Binalshibh and Zakariya Essabar. Friends of lead hijacker Mohamed Atta, the three are suspected of having plotted the attacks with him in Hamburg and have been indicted on terrorism charges. As TIME reported last month, U.S. officials think Binalshibh was intended to have been the 20th hijacker on Sept. 11; he couldn't get a visa to enter the country for reasons that officials have not explained.

Outside bin Laden's inner circle, the most senior figure worrying U.S. investigators is Mustafa Ahmed, a.k.a. Shaikh Saiid, the bin Laden business manager and Sept. 11 paymaster who was in the United Arab Emirates until shortly before the attacks. Ahmed has the skills and connections to put together funding for another terrorist operation--and he doesn't need bin Laden's money. Investigators have learned over the past few weeks that al-Qaeda's money comes from many varied sources beyond bin Laden, including gem miners who help raise funds for the group in Tanzania; contraband traders in the Muslim-heavy border region where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet; and workers at charities throughout the Mideast.

"Bin Laden never needed to use his own money to finance his activity," says Jacquard. "He always found it from Islamic charities, solidarity funds for the Afghan jihad, etc. The flow of that money--more than $300 million per year--continues. And it will take years, if not decades, of Western pressure on Arab societies to submit the sources and conduits of such funds to regulation. If bin Laden disappears, someone else will step up and find the same funding he did. If no one steps up, the money will find its way to people at lower levels--until things radically change."

No one is predicting with confidence who might emerge to run al-Qaeda if its current leadership is decimated. Jacquard believes that one individual to watch in a post-Osama world is Rifa'i Taha, who leads al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, the group that claimed responsibility for the 1997 terrorist attacks on tourists in Luxor, Egypt. A co-founder of bin Laden's international jihad, Taha actually distanced himself from al-Qaeda earlier this year. He argued for focusing jihad activity on corrupt regimes in Arab lands, something bin Laden forsook to concentrate on the U.S. Taha's whereabouts are unknown, but last week, a well-connected Cairo publication reported that he had been arrested in Syria and handed over to Egyptian authorities. They would not confirm the story.

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