Afghanistan was such a cozy home base for al-Qaeda. The network enjoyed luxuries like its own air-shuttle service, using the national airline Ariana to ship terrorist cargo and personnel, including Osama bin Laden's bodyguards and their families, between Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf or East Africa. Sometimes al-Qaeda agents would even slip in and out of other countries disguised as Ariana flight attendants, according to aviation sources.
To the men who ran al-Qaeda, the rugged, war-torn wasteland of Afghanistan was a kind of paradise. Under the benevolent tolerance of the Taliban, the bosses of international terrorism found just the kind of sanctuary they needed to recruit, train and plot their deadly attacks. But by last week any members of al-Qaeda who had escaped U.S. daisy-cutter bombs and Afghan bounty hunters were on the lam and in desperate search for a new base. Besides such fugitives, there are an unknown number of operatives safely lodged in secret cells scattered from the hinterlands of Yemen to the jungles of the Philippines to the suburban streets of America. Now, as the terrorists struggle to keep operations running and Washington moves from hunting down bin Laden to rooting out his worldwide acolytes, the next order of battle for the U.S. will be to make sure no other country offers them the kind of vital sanctuary they enjoyed in Afghanistan.
Even terrorists need a headquarters. The people who command and control the network--even one with task forces and affiliates as loose and decentralized as al-Qaeda's--can't operate effectively for long without a communications and finance center. Most of all, they have got to have training camps where they can indoctrinate suicide attackers, explosives experts, document forgers and dedicated jihadis to replenish the terrorist ranks. Every successful mission, after all, depletes the pool.
Whatever new leadership emerges in al-Qaeda will be seeking a similar kind of place for a new home base--a secure, isolated location with a sympathetic local population and a weak central government. But it will not be easy this time. Under pressure from the U.S. or out of fear they might be targeted next, the usual suspects when it comes to sponsoring terrorism (e.g., Sudan, Libya) are moving to clean up their act and countries that often turn a blind eye to terrorist groups in their midst (e.g., Yemen, Pakistan) are starting to crack down.
The U.S. campaign to deny al-Qaeda a second life elsewhere in the world counts mainly on diplomacy, intelligence and law enforcement. Military sources tell TIME that the Pentagon has asked regional commanders to draw up plans for throttling an array of militants from the Middle East to Africa to Asia. But the basic idea is to push friendly nations and those worried about self-preservation to take out terrorist hubs. Already, Pentagon officials tell TIME, 100 U.S. special-ops commandos will deploy to train Philippine soldiers in counterterror and close-quarter battle tactics against the Abu Sayyaf insurgents who have ties to al-Qaeda. The U.S. military advisers won't engage in combat but will set up an "intelligence fusion center" to help clamp down on terrorist activities. "It's one of the areas that have to get cleaned up," says a U.S. intelligence official. So where might al-Qaeda look for a safe spot to reconstitute its executive branch?