The paradox of al-Qaeda in the two years since 9/11 has been that while the efforts of U.S. and allied intelligence agencies have battered its core transnational networks, al-Qaeda as a movement or an idea as distinct from a narrow clandestine organizational network has actually grown. Analysts believe the international intelligence and security cooperation has severely impeded al-Qaeda's ability to conduct highly sophisticated transnational terror operations such as the attacks in New York and Washington, but that Bin Laden's movement has adapted by morphing into a far more decentralized entity relying principally on the structures and energies of pre-existing local groups ideologically in synch with al-Qaeda. The perpetrators of last Saturday's Istanbul synagogue bombings, for example, are Turkish Islamists associated with al-Qaeda linked groups operating inside Turkey. Similarly, attacks in Riyadh and Indonesia have been carried out by members of local Islamist organizations with links to al-Qaeda. The very term "al-Qaeda" now doesn't necessarily have the same implication as it did on 9/11, when attacks carried out on U.S. soil by foreign terrorists were micromanaged by a senior operational echelon in Afghanistan and other remote locations. While that capacity certainly still exists, the bulk of the attacks being carried out now in al-Qaeda's name are the work of localized network following general "fire-at-will" orders and picking targets of opportunity.
More than ever, al-Qaeda has become a network of networks, a loose association of a variety of different organizations. A few thousand core operatives who have sworn loyalty to Bin Laden may today function as trainers-of-trainers, and capitalizing on Bin Laden's years of investment in training and funding for tens of thousands of the footsoldiers of localized Islamist movements throughout the Arab world and among Muslims from China to Chechnya, East Africa to Southeast Asia. And the U.S. invasion of Iraq has dramatically boosted the growth potential of this more diffuse jihadi movement over which al-Qaeda can still claim parentage. Analysts such as those at the prestigious Institute of International Strategic Studies in London (which hosted President Bush's speech on Wednesday) believe that al-Qaeda has successfully capitalized on the upsurge of worldwide Muslim outrage over the invasion to swell its ranks. And the escalating insurgency confronting U.S. troops in Iraq punctuated by regular suicide terror attacks reminiscent of those committed by al Qaeda may be amplifying Bin Laden's message that the path of jihad can defeat the U.S. and redeem Arab honor.
On a more narrow and self-serving level, Bin Laden also has an interest in demonstrating his continued relevance at a time when much of the Muslim world's anti-American enthusiasms are inspired by an Iraqi insurgency led, on the ground, by mid-level Baathist security force officers supported by local Islamist elements. Bin Laden terrorist ego may be feeling the pressure to show that he and his movement, not the apostate Saddam and his secular nationalist Baathists, are the nemesis of the Americans.
Terror strikes in the heart of Muslim cities such as Casablanca, Riyadh and Istanbul are also designed to provoke a confrontation between pro-U.S. regimes and indigenous Islamists, in the hope that these regimes could be weakened or toppled. The movement's primary strategic objective is to gain control of Muslim countries, eliminating Western influence and establishing Islamist regimes. But pursuing that goal via terrorist bombings in those countries carries the inherent risk of turning potentially sympathetic public opinion against the extremists, as it did in Egypt during the 1990s when terror attacks on tourists and civilians prompted many Egyptians to support a ferocious government crackdown. The latest attacks in Turkey, like those in Riyadh, may have been directed at targets somehow associated with foreigners, but most of the victims have been Muslim passersby.
It's possible that even those among the citizenry broadly sympathetic to al-Qaeda's critique of U.S. policy will be alienated by the bloodletting of innocents on their own streets, and turn against the extremists. Those who "massacred innocent people will account for it in both worlds," said Turkish prime minister Recip Erdogan in response to the bombings. "They will be damned until eternity." Erdogan's own ruling party has its roots in Turkey's moderate Islamist movement. But the reaction to jihadi suicide attacks in Iraq raises a cautionary flag: Even when most of the victims are innocent Iraqis, many ordinary Iraqis direct their anger over the attacks at the Americans for failing to ensure security or simply for being occupiers. The street reaction to al-Qaeda's "collateral damage" may be too hard to predict right now.
But by targeting Turkey, the radicals may also be seeking to provoke a crisis that slows its ascension into the European Union. Those provoking the government in Ankara will know, all too well, the ferocity the Turkish authorities are prepared to bring to bear to stamp out terrorism on their soil some 35,000 people died in Turkey's bitter war against Kurdish separatists that ended about four years ago. That war on terror saw human rights abuses that were cited by the European Union as reasons to delay Turkey's membership, and the al-Qaeda aligned insurgents may want to provoke a widespread crackdown and foment hostility between secular military authorities and a civilian political leadership with Islamist roots, in the hope that this could halt Turkey's democratic reform process and delay its accession to the EU. Turkey may have managed to avoid domestic political discord by staying out of the Iraq war, but al-Qaeda may now be forcing some tough choices on the Turkish leadership.