Why the Qaeda Threat is Growing

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French Army soldiers patrol the Marseille railway station

Terrorists reminded us last week in Madrid that the specter of al-Qaeda haunts the Western world today as much as it did on September 12, 2001 — if not more so. Even as Spain appears to have arrested those responsible, security analysts on both sides of the Atlantic are already focused on one question: Where next? Italy, France, Australia, Japan and others are tightening up security procedures; the New York City Police Department, mindful of the vulnerability of the city's mass transit system, has sent experts to Madrid to study the mechanics of the train bombings that killed more than 200 commuters there. "Attack on London is Inevitable," screamed one British headline on Wednesday, quoting British security officials.

And yet, even as Western cities gird for more carnage, reports from Western Pakistan claim that al-Qaeda's Number 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri has been surrounded and that his boss can't be far behind. Pakistani officials began to backpedal on some of those claims, Friday, conceding that it was based simply on the intensity of the resistance they're encountering on their sweep through a tribal area in the hunt for al-Qaeda fugitives. Still, the head of France's military announced on Monday that Osama bin Laden had more than once in recent weeks narrowly escaped from French troops fighting in a new U.S.-led offensive aimed at snaring the al-Qaeda leader. The U.S. military unit that captured Saddam Hussein has been moved to the Afghan-Pakistan border, and U.S. officials have expressed confidence they'll get their man by year's end. And, as President Bush has noted, up to two-thirds of the known al-Qaeda leadership is already either dead or in custody.

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How then to reconcile the apparent contradiction of bin Laden and his lieutenants being on the ropes in western Pakistan, while the deadly shadow cast over the West by his movement grows longer? The answer lies in the nature of al-Qaeda itself, and how it has evolved in response to the U.S. war on terror.

Brand-name Terrorism

Last week, CIA director George Tenet told the Senate that al-Qaeda has morphed into a loose and expanding association of regional terror cells linked less by chains of command and communication than by a common vision of jihad against the U.S. The growing embrace of the movement's goals and tactics by terror cells with no direct operational connection to bin Laden's network, said Tenet, means that "a serious threat will remain for the foreseeable future, with or without al-Qaeda in the picture."

When terror outrages from Madrid and Casablanca, through Istanbul and Baghdad, to Bali and Jakarta, are described as the work of "al-Qaeda," the name describes a broad franchise of terrorist jihad against the U.S. and its allies adopted by scores of local Islamist groups. Western intelligence agencies don't believe the men on the run in western Pakistan are actually pulling the trigger on attacks such as the Madrid bombings. Instead, bin Laden and his deputies set broad objectives in their "State of the Union" type addresses periodically released to Arab broadcast media, and those objectives can be pursued by discrete terror cells who may never have direct contact with al-Qaeda's core leadership.

Diverse groups, some of them launched by veterans of the Afghan camps, others entirely local may be bound together less by organizational loyalty to bin Laden than by a commitment to the ideas he personifies — global jihad against the U.S. and its allies. In the language of commerce, al-Qaeda has become a brand, with bin Laden its symbol —a signifier that immediately explains its content. Local jihadi groups in Iraq or Turkey that have no operational contact with bin Laden's leadership cadre nonetheless proclaim their affiliation with al-Qaeda, because that association amplifies the meaning of a specific action — the bombing of a hotel in Istanbul or an embassy in Baghdad — by tying it to a global jihad. Claiming the "al-Qaeda" imprimatur also allows such groups to burnish their appeal among local malcontents, whose anti-American sentiment is at an all-time high.

Osama bin Laden the idea has transcended the fate of Osama bin Laden the man. As long as bin Laden refuses to be taken alive and humiliated like Saddam Hussein, his elimination — as CIA director Tenet suggests — is unlikely to have a significant impact on the terror threat facing the West. His call to violence against the West and its allies has now infected scores of local groups that are able to reproduce themselves ad infinitum as growing hostility to the U.S. produces new generations of willing recruits. Even such establishment voices as London's prestigious International Institute of Strategic Studies, which supported the Iraq war and hosted President Bush's during his recent state visit to Britain, concludes that the hostility sparked by the Iraq war has substantially increased the growth potential for jihadi terror groups. Rather than isolating the jihadis in Arab public opinion and starving them of support, the effect of the war has been to move their view of the U.S. closer to the mainstream.

Fighting the Hydra

Just as President Bush claims 9/11 "changed everything" in U.S. politics, so, too may the Madrid attacks mark a turning point in Europe's relationship to President Bush's war on terror. The continent's geographical proximity to the Arab world and its large — and mostly impoverished and marginalized — Arab immigrant populations make it especially vulnerable to terror attacks. Now that al-Qaeda and its supporters are directly attacking Europe's cities rather than simply using them as staging areas, European leaders are looking to ramp up their own efforts to fight terror. But as the Spanish election result shows, this may put them more sharply at odds with the Bush administration. That's because there's a widely held belief among the Europeans that while police and intelligence cooperation across the Atlantic (and across the Mediterranean, with Arab security services) has been highly effective in eliminating al-Qaeda cells, the U.S. invasion of Iraq has been not only ineffective, but actually counterproductive in the fight against terrorism. European Commission chief Romano Prodi argues that the use of military force as a prime weapon in the fight against terrorism is not working: "Terrorism is now more powerful than ever before," he says. And most European leaders believe the al-Qaeda phenomenon will not be defeated until the anti-U.S. grievances in the Arab world on which it feeds have been addressed.

European Union security officials meet in Madrid on Friday to hammer out a strategy — a meeting in which the U.S. won't be participating. That's natural, of course, in that the U.S. is not part of the European Union. But it may also signal an intention by the Europeans to forge a more effective strategy for countering the al-Qaeda movement, and challenging the U.S. to rethink its own approach.

The U.S. was the victim on September 11, and that gave it the moral authority to drive the war on terror, with Europeans in support despite their misgivings over the Bush administration's failure to combine it with a political strategy to isolate the terrorists by defusing some of the key sources of Muslim anger at the U.S. — particularly the occupation of Iraq, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — which are exploited by al-Qaeda to rally support. Many European leaders believe the Iraq war has fueled rather than doused the fires of jihad. And March 11 in Madrid has given the Europeans a greater claim to a leading role in defining the West's response to terrorism.