Why the War on Terror Will Never End

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JALIL BOUNHAR/AP

FRESH TARGETS: Suicide bombers hit Casablanca, Morocco, last week

For Scott Schlageter, 35, an American procurement manager for the Saudi air force, it was just another expat's night in Riyadh. He was watching an Antonio Banderas thriller, curled up on the sofa in his home in al-Jadawel, a gated town-house complex in the Saudi Arabian capital. Suddenly the lights died, and the TV zapped off. Schlageter saw a flash and felt a thundering explosion that blew out all his windows. "I grabbed my cell phone, went upstairs to a secure room, called the U.S. embassy and told them we were under attack," he says. A vehicle loaded with explosives had blown up at the gates of the compound.

At that very moment, similar assaults were under way in two other residential areas. Four miles away, at a complex that housed dozens of Americans employed by Vinnell Corp. to help train the Saudi National Guard, a pair of cars were on a deadly mission. The first, a Ford Crown Victoria sedan filled with terrorists armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, sped up to the compound's security checkpoint. The men mowed down the guards and removed a 3-ft.-high steel barrier that protected the compound. The second vehicle, a Dodge pickup loaded with explosives, followed close behind. It barreled into a central area and exploded between two five-story buildings. At the nearby al-Hamra complex, two other explosives-laden vehicles were detonated near a pool where a party was in progress. By the time the smoke cleared from the three assaults last Monday, 34 were dead, and 200 more were wounded. The dead included nine Americans and nine of the assassins.

Terror struck again just four days later. In the Moroccan city of Casablanca, five suicide bombers hit within 20 minutes of one another, spreading death and destruction across an array of targets: a Spanish social club, a hotel, a Jewish community center and cemetery, a restaurant next to Belgium's consulate. Nearly half of the 41 who lost their lives had been at the club, Casa d'Espana, where two suicide bombers muscled in after slitting the throat of a guard. Within a day, Moroccan authorities had rounded up a number of Islamic militants and had in custody one man who had been detained before his bomb exploded. More attacks seemed likely, and both the State Department and the British government warned people to stay away from East Africa.

Before Riyadh and Casablanca, it was tempting, if just for a moment, to believe that the war on terrorism was going well, that the big picture was of one success after another. The U.S. had notched a quick victory in Iraq, deposing a regime the Administration had linked to extremist Islamic terrorists. The much feared retaliatory strikes didn't take place, and no attacks had hit the U.S. after Sept. 11, 2001. Several key leaders of al-Qaeda, the network headed by Osama bin Laden that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks, had been arrested. Just days before the bombings in Riyadh, President Bush stood on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln to bask in his Iraq triumph and declared, "The war on terror is not over, yet it is not endless. We do not know the day of final victory, but we have seen the turning of the tide."

Then reality returned with a vengeance. After the latest blasts, no one is talking about turning any tide. Instead, the world is focused again on mourning, on soul searching, on how to deliver an effective response. Make no mistake about it: Islamic extremists are still angry enough, and organized enough, to cause considerable damage to the U.S. and its allies.

Was it al-Qaeda again?
Although there is not yet definitive proof, the attacks in Riyadh, American officials say, bore all the hallmarks of the organization. A source tells TIME that a full nine months ago, U.S. intelligence picked up signs of an intense debate within an al-Qaeda cell in Saudi Arabia over whether to stage a major operation inside the kingdom. Bin Laden himself may have contributed, at least from afar, to the debate. In an audiotape sent to the Arab TV network al-Jazeera in February, a man claiming to be bin Laden called on "honest Muslims" to "liberate themselves from those unjust and renegade regimes that are enslaved by the United States." Among the "most qualified regions for liberation," the speaker continued, were Saudi Arabia and Morocco.

There was other evidence that last week's attacks may have been linked to al-Qaeda. Just days before the Riyadh bombings, Saudi police botched a stakeout on a safe house just outside al-Jadawel where they believed terrorists had congregated. Weapons were found, but the men got away. Saudi authorities quickly released the names and photographs of 19 alleged terrorists. Two of the suspects—Abdulrahman Mansour Jabarah and Khalid al-Jehani—seem to have al-Qaeda links. Jabarah is the elder brother of Mohammed Mansour (Sammy) Jabarah, a Kuwaiti Canadian now in U.S. custody who allegedly took part in a foiled al-Qaeda plot to blow up embassies in Singapore. Al-Jehani, identified by some as al-Qaeda's chief of operations in the gulf region, appeared cradling a Kalashnikov in a famous al-Qaeda martyrdom video found in an Afghanistan safe house in 2001. Al-Qaeda may well be responsible for the Casablanca bombings too. A senior Moroccan official says interrogations quickly established that the terrorists were "indoctrinated, trained, organized and put into motion by foreign members of the international jihad movement." He added, "We're talking about al-Qaeda here." From the moment it bombed two U.S. embassies simultaneously in Africa in 1998, al-Qaeda showed it had the skill, resources and personnel to coordinate terrorist outrages on a scale never seen before. Since 9/11, the organization has been under constant pressure.

International cooperation among law enforcement authorities is far more effective. The terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and the safe haven al-Qaeda constructed there have been dismantled. But the network remains formidable, U.S. officials say. "Al-Qaeda still retains the ability to plan and launch terrorist attacks, including in this country," says a U.S. official.

Where does al-Qaeda get its residual strength?
Some of its fighters defiantly remain in Afghanistan—"They haven't entirely left," a U.S. official tells TIME—and operatives elsewhere are trying to develop chemical and biological weapons. U.S. officials late last week disclosed the recent arrest of two men believed to have been planning surveillance on possible targets inside the U.S. In the past 18 months, terrorists have struck from the Philippines to Tunisia, and suspected attackers have been detained everywhere from Rome to Chicago. Determining whether the West is gaining in the fight against terrorism requires interpreting shadowy, shapeless data. Yet this much can be safely said: international terrorism existed long before 9/11 and will continue long after it.

Where's bin Laden?
For most americans, "winning" the war on terrorism means a clear victory over al-Qaeda. On the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, Bush said, "Nearly one-half of al-Qaeda's senior operatives have been captured or killed." That's probably accurate. The arrests on April 29 in Pakistan of Walid bin Attash, suspected of organizing the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole at the Yemeni port of Aden, and Ali Abd al-Aziz, an alleged paymaster of the Sept. 11 team, were just the latest in an impressive series of arrests of leading al-Qaeda figures.

But al-Qaeda clearly remains capable of organizing sophisticated attacks. U.S. officials believe some al-Qaeda leaders have regrouped in Iran. The government in Tehran denies that al-Qaeda is using the country as a new operations base. But according to a Western diplomat in Tehran, members of al-Qaeda's executive council, or shura, have convened several times in the parched borderlands where Iran meets Pakistan and Afghanistan and where the writ of the Tehran government is less powerful than the local traditions of smuggling and lawlessness.

As for bin Laden himself, analysts generally believe he is still alive and probably capable of getting messages to his followers, if only by the slow means of personal courier. Both CIA and FBI counterterrorism officials think he is hiding somewhere in the mountains along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Capturing bin Laden—whose name Bush has not publicly uttered unprompted since February 2002—would be hugely satisfying to Americans. But it is not clear what effect taking bin Laden "dead or alive" would actually have on terrorism today. Many analysts feel strongly that measuring success against al-Qaeda by the number of leaders captured is mistaken. Lopping off the beast's head may not kill its body. "They keep likening (al-Qaeda) to a snake," says an intelligence officer in the Pentagon, "but it's more like a deadly mold."

It's an apt and frightening image: the emergence of a raw, repulsive killer when the environmental conditions are ripe. Al-Qaeda rose to prominence by throwing its deadly mantle over various Islamic terrorist groups—in places like the Philippines, Uzbekistan, Algeria—whose principal mission had been directed against local governments. Bin Laden provided an ideological justification, rooted in a superfundamentalist Islamic doctrine, for inter- nationalizing those conflicts. Al-Qaeda's alliance with the Taliban in Afghanistan enabled it to establish camps where terror-craft could be taught and operational teams assembled. And al-Qaeda's access to substantial flows of cash, mainly from Saudi Arabia and the other gulf states, allowed it to act as a banker for local groups. This meshing of interests and cooperation was evident in the Bali bombings last year, in which local Indonesian Islamic extremists, some of whom had trained in Afghanistan, attacked Western targets in a plot funded at least partially by al-Qaeda.

How big a threat?
Is al-Qaeda as powerful as it once was, more than a year and a half after Sept. 11? Is it still a threat to America? The answers are: no and yes. Improvements in security and surveillance mean it would be much harder for the organization to pull off a long-planned, complex, relatively expensive operation in the West like the one that occurred on Sept. 11. There are also better controls on the international flow of funds to terrorist groups. But al-Qaeda, says Roland Jacquard, a well-known French expert on terrorism, doesn't need as much money as it once did. "What cost al-Qaeda millions," he says, "was the camps. The group doesn't have the same financial needs as it did before." The Bali bombing cost perhaps $35,000 to pull off, a sum easily gathered from the credit-card fraud and petty-crime networks that certain Islamist extremists run.

It also is clear that the destruction of the Afghan camps, however useful, had one perverse and unintended effect. Terrorists and their supporters who had formerly been concentrated in one known place were dispersed to home regions and new hideouts like Chechnya, Yemen, East Africa and Georgia's Pankisi Gorge. Regional commanders of al-Qaeda, says Rohan Gunaratna, author of a leading book on the network, are now "operating independently of centralized control." Local terrorist chiefs, he says, no longer depend on anything from bin Laden and his top brass except for ideological inspiration.

How bin Laden's message resonates these days is unclear. In the run-up to the war in Iraq, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak predicted—and many in the West concurred—that the fighting would spawn many acts of terrorism. "If there is one bin Laden now," he said, "there will be 100 bin Ladens afterward." That phenomenon has not materialized. In some countries with volatile Islamic communities, like Indonesia, demonstrations against the war were far smaller than many had expected. A French investigator says anger among Islamic communities over Iraq won't necessarily translate into a surge in terrorism-organization membership. "Recruitment involves risks of infiltration for networks," he says. "The Arab kid who walks into a mosque after the first bombing of Baghdad and says he wants to work for al-Qaeda is exactly the sort of guy they want no part of."

The Next Attacks Where are future assaults likely to take place? Last week's incidents suggest an answer. As a senior French investigator says, "International jihad places priority foremost on the lands of Islam." By focusing on targets in the Islamic world, terrorists get a double benefit. They can hit Westerners—tourists in Bali, diners in Casablanca. And they can damage the governments of Islamic states they consider to have strayed from the true path and to have allied themselves with the U.S. Andre Azoulay, an adviser to King Mohammed VI of Morocco, views the Casablanca bombing as an attempt to punish "the only Arab state that has made the growth of a democratic, pluralistic and harmonious multireligious society a stated policy. Our openness and freedom as a society is what they fear the most."

The recent attacks on the Saudi kingdom were no surprise to U.S. counterterrorism officials. In February the CIA warned the ruling royals of the possibility of imminent assaults. Washington had also grown concerned that the Saudis had not done all they could to cut the cash flow to terrorists. Earlier this year Cofer Black, the State Department's head of counterterrorism, visited the kingdom to give the princes "substantial and highly sensitive information" showing that "Saudi charities had been corrupted for terrorist purposes," a senior Administration official tells TIME. A U.S. dossier named prominent Saudi businessmen and charities like the al-Haramein Foundation, long suspected in Washington of being a source of funds for terrorism. The exercise involved a level of intelligence sharing, says the U.S. official, that had not been offered before.

In mid-April Black was back in Riyadh accompanied by David Aufhauser, general counsel to the Treasury Department, to follow up. By then, a source tells TIME, the U.S. had heard "chatter" that seemed to indicate that "some people felt that they had won a green light for operations inside Saudi Arabia." Black told Saudi officials Washington had good information that an attack on Americans in the kingdom could come within weeks. By May 1, the very day Bush was speaking on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, the State Department issued a warning against travel in the region. Two days later, according to someone who was present, U.S. Ambassador Robert Jordan told a gathering of Americans in Riyadh "with painstaking bluntness" that if they could, they should leave.

As the chatter picked up steam, Stephen Hadley, U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser, made an unscheduled stop on May 2 in Riyadh to convince the Saudis of the seriousness of the situation. He asked for enhanced protection, including armed military guards, at all Western facilities in the kingdom. The Saudis, U.S. officials tell TIME, said there were more than 300 such locations and pleaded, Couldn't the U.S. be more specific about the threat? "It appeared that we had the interest of the senior leadership," says a U.S. official, "but there was no follow-up." On May 7, after the Riyadh safe house was raided, Jordan called for tighter security and in a follow-up on May 10 specifically appealed for more protection at al-Jadawel. After inspecting the compound, Saudi authorities decided security was adequate.

A team of 66 FBI personnel is working closely with Saudi authorities as they sift through the debris at the wrecked compounds. Sources say the Saudis, who did not cooperate effectively with U.S. law enforcement after earlier attacks inside Saudi Arabia involving Americans, are being helpful this time. Saudi officials have been conducting an exercise in damage control on American TV, telling the world they will crack down on terrorism and its financing as never before. The Saudis publically announced last week that the al-Haramein Foundation had been ordered to close eight of its foreign offices and that its charitable activities will be confined to the kingdom. The Saudis also plan to bring three other major charities to heel—al-Rabita, the World Muslim Youth League and the International Islamic Relief Organization. Some U.S. officials insist that the Saudis will have to do still more to break a pattern of appeasing Islamic militants. Yet acting forcefully would represent a risk for the House of Saud, which has long drawn legitimacy from deeply religious Muslims.

Perhaps the Saudi government will break with past habits. But even if it does, those terrorists who believe with a religious conviction that the lives of Americans and their friends are fair game will continue their unending war. These days, when Scott Schlageter leaves al-Jadawel for a spin in his car, he wears a white shirt and a red-checked Arab headdress. That way, he hopes, nobody will mistake him for an infidel.

—Reported by Timothy J. Burger, Massimo Calabresi, Elaine Shannon, Mark Thompson and Adam Zagorin/ Washington, Bruce Crumley/Casablanca, Simon Elegant/Kuala Lumpur, Scott Macleod/Riyadh and Tim McGirk/Tehran