If we are fighting a "war on terror", then al-Qa'ida is clearly the enemy. But even before it was disrupted by the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the arrest of many members of its inner circle, it was never an organisation with a clear hierarchical structure. It has always been as much an ideology as a tangible group.
"Trying to hit al Qa'ida is like trying to hit jelly," said one intelligence source. "One minute you think you know who is running it, and next minute you feel you have no idea."
Bin Laden himself, even before the attacks of 11 September 2001 turned him into a fugitive, was as much a figurehead as a strategist. Presumed to be hiding in the tribal borderlands straddling Afghanistan and Pakistan, communicating only by written notes and the occasional hand-delivered cassette or video tape, he is in no position to exert day-to-day control over terrorist attacks.
"The good news is that it is difficult for bin Laden to issue orders and direction to people now," an intelligence official said. "The bad news is that it is harder to track and stop inspired groups who leave fewer footprints, communicate less and don't need to travel as far."
Arresting bin Laden or his deputy, the Egyptian physician Ayman al-Zawahiri, would have huge symbolic significance, depriving al-Qa'ida of its ideological focus. But its operational capacity has already suffered. Two arrests in particular, those of Ramzi Binalshibh in September 2002 and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in March 2003, both in Pakistan, disrupted its ability to direct attacks.
The two men have disappeared into American custody, along with other senior figures such as Abu Farah al-Libbi, said to have replaced Sheikh Mohammed, and Abu Zubaydah, described as bin Laden's field commander. But any information they have given interrogators is likely to be significantly out of date by now.
"Franchise terrorism" is the term experts have applied to the new phase. What was already a loose network has become even looser, with the thousands trained in al-Qa'ida's camps in Afghanistan returning to their home territories to energise followers and pass on their expertise. In the past 18 months, they have persuaded dozens of men, operating independently of the core leadership, to assemble and deliver suicide or conventional bombs in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Spain, Egypt and now, it seems, in London.
Informal, ad hoc alliances come together to carry out attacks, then disperse. In some cases word of impending attacks may have been passed to bin Laden or his associates, but the leadership's main function appears to be giving retrospective approval.
"According to Osama bin Laden's thinking, there are no dormant cells," Abu Jandal, one of his former bodyguards in Afghanistan, said in a recent interview in the Arabic-language newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi. "Every element of al-Qa'ida is self-activated. Whoever finds a chance to attack just goes ahead. The decision is theirs."
Perhaps the best-known example of this is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the self-proclaimed leader of al-Qa'ida in Iraq. Although his connection to bin Laden was tenuous in the past, his highly public kidnappings and killings of Western hostages, as well as attacks on US and Iraqi forces, have won him approval from the al-Qa'ida leadership.
In the West itself, Alex Standish, editor of Jane's Intelligence Review and a senior research fellow at Durham University, sees "far more autonomous groups that are inspired by al-Qa'ida's message of hatred of the West ... In the last few years, these groups seem to have adopted a very cellular structure. Most of them have very tight-knit cells, with eight to 10 individuals or so, who have personal links that go back for years."
Dealing with this threat is a nightmare for counter-terrorist agencies, but many question whether it makes sense to label the struggle as a war. "Even though this is pure revenge terrorism, with no negotiable demands, you still have to try to understand what they want to achieve," said George Kassimeris, a senior research fellow in conflict and terrorism at the University of Wolverhampton. "President Bush has said this war could go on for years, but we can't have a major attack in a European capital every year for the foreseeable future.
"The conflict shouldn't be personalised as one against Osama bin Laden. Everything doesn't go through him, and building him up as the arch-terrorist simply helps the cause of those seeking to attack us."Reuse content