What Is Al-Qaeda Without Its Boss?

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AMIR SHAH/AP

A Northern Alliance soldier reads through papers found in a suspected al-Qaeda compound

With U.S. forces in Afghanistan zeroing in on the leaders of the al-Qaeda network, one was tempted to imagine that Osama bin Laden and his top men were burning in an-Nar, the Koran's hell--and that the war on terrorism was coming to a close. But is the outlook really so clear? Will the network's foot soldiers retreat and hide, the hydra withering after its bearded heads are lopped off? Or can the beast survive even if bin Laden and his lieutenants are dead or captured? Can al-Qaeda operatives around the world keep terrorizing without their leaders' instructions?

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Intelligence analysts in many of the 50 or so nations with an al-Qaeda presence are gaming out multiple scenarios, all highly speculative, but most observers agree that the network could still function without its board of directors. After all, the base has long been more metaphor than description; it's not as though there was a headquarters building. Rather, al-Qaeda provided training and inspiration to about 11,000 men--according to U.S. intelligence estimates--who passed through its Afghan camps. Al-Qaeda's leaders sent them back home with like-minded compatriots, a knowledge of explosives and heady ideas about global jihad. Many were willing to travel for a fight--perhaps to Chechnya and Bosnia, perhaps to the top floors of the World Trade Center.

"This movement, these groups, are far too spread out, diffuse and fluid for a single operation to knock them out," says Irene Stoller, who in May retired after 13 years as director of France's antiterror division. "Bin Laden and his lieutenants may seem from the outside like super-managers of international Islamist terror, but the real planning and execution is carried out at lower levels."

The question is, Will people at those lower levels continue to plan and execute strikes against the West, vivifying bin Laden's dreams of far-flung struggle? Or will they perhaps return to their native countries and direct their anger toward the homegrown grievances that so radicalized them in the first place? Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11 were Saudis. Would they have tried to battle their kingdom's supposed Islamic impurities--its corrupt princes, its hosting of U.S. soldiers--if bin Laden and his men hadn't given them another venue for their rage?

Though the answers are admittedly guesswork, French terrorism expert Roland Jacquard is among those who expect many al-Qaeda operatives to migrate home. "With the fall of Afghanistan, we'll be seeing a lot of 'ex-Taliban' and 'ex-al-Qaeda' without sanctuary. These people will probably return home to Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria and elsewhere to take up struggles there."

Mustafa Alani agrees. A Middle East expert at the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defense Studies, he believes that many al-Qaeda operatives in Europe already have slipped away and gone back to their homelands, in part to avoid the law-enforcement dragnet on the Continent. "There are always guidelines about what to do in an emergency," he says, noting that terrorist groups like Egypt's al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya and Egyptian Islamic Jihad always provided operatives with support teams to help arrange transportation along preplanned escape routes. A senior U.S. official told TIME recently that "bin Laden has always been a good forward thinker."

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.

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