By Stan Crock If the U.S. is safer now from terrorist attacks, we may have al Qaeda to thank in part. Since September 11 and the war in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden's followers have been forced to rethink their strategy and tactics in ways that are more defensive -- and ultimately more transparent -- many security analysts believe.
Heightened security at airports and office buildings, closer cooperation between the FBI and CIA, and better-prepared emergency-response teams have all been desirable and constructive changes. But some experts believe the real benefit for America may be coming from al Qaeda's preoccupation with finding a new base of operations and developing new recruitment strategies. The terrorist faction also seems to be second-guessing itself more of late, worried that additional attacks might backfire in ways al Qaeda can't anticipate.
WRONG BETS. These changes occurred partly because all of al Qaeda's calculations about the impact of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon proved wrong, according to Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior fellow at the Nixon Center, a Washington (D.C.) think tank. He thinks that al Qaeda believed the U.S. would beat a hasty retreat from the Middle East after September 11, and that didn't happen.
Nor was America paralyzed, as bin Laden and al Qaeda predicted. The anticipated uprisings in the Arab world, based on the assumption that the U.S. wouldn't be able to protect vulnerable, autocratic regimes, haven't materialized either. Truth is, the group never imagined that the U.S. would oust the Taliban, killing or rounding up perhaps a third of al Qaeda's members, and depriving it of a haven in Afghanistan.
Now al Qaeda's top priority is finding a new home. That's necessary in the same way that a regular army needs a home for training and logistics, says Larry C. Johnson, a terrorism expert and chief executive officer of BERG Associates, a consulting firm. Gvsodev says al Qaeda is looking at the Balkans, Somalia, western Pakistan, and, if the Karzai regime collapses, Afghanistan again in a couple of years. Another option: the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. Notes Johnson: "There are more terrorist training camps in Lebanon than anywhere else."
Al Qaeda could take a different tack entirely, though. Both Gvosdev and Johnson believe that al Qaeda is studying whether to try setting up protected areas of operations in Latin America, similar to what FARC guerillas have done in Colombia, cutting deals with drug traffickers. Some remote areas of Venezuela are possibilities.
THE GREAT SATAN'S RICHES. Gvosdev also believes that certain factions in al Qaeda want to alter the group's tactics and focus on terrorism against Americans abroad, rather than in the homeland. They consider the U.S. a cash cow, valuable for both fund-raising and recruitment. Let civil libertarians in the U.S. use their soapbox to keep the country open. That will allow the terrorists to continue their operations, this theory goes.
Al Qaeda didn't anticipate the quick passage after September 11 of the Patriot Act, which gave law-enforcement agencies additional powers. Nor did they foresee that the FBI would encounter few obstacles to monitoring mosques and other religious activities -- tactics the bureau had avoided in the past. Now, some al Qaeda leaders may be arguing that another attack on the homeland could lead to an even greater crackdown, and thus would be self-defeating.
Another shift by al Qaeda involves recruitment. Experts say they're looking, quite literally, for more blond-haired, blue-eyed recruits, who wouldn't arouse suspicion as easily as an ethnic Arab or Muslim. But this approach could also backfire by making it easier for law-enforcement and intelligence officials to penetrate the organization. The government may not have a lot of Arabic-speaking and -looking operatives, but America has a plentiful supply of blue-eyed blonds.
A LITTLE SAFER? All of these developments are encouraging -- with one caveat. L. Paul Bremer, chairman and chief executive of Marsh Crisis Consulting, notes that the current lull may produce a false sense of security that could give the terrorists a tactical advantage. Al Qaeda attacks globally have averaged one a year, with the hiatus ranging from 9 to 17 months. The one-year anniversary of the attacks isn't that far away.
If the Israelis can't foil every terrorist attack, it's unlikely that the U.S. could do so. The big question is what the nature of the next attack will be. But to the extent al Qaeda has been forced to retrench because its calculations about U.S. behavior have been so wrong, all Americans may be able to sleep a little better at night. Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BusinessWeek Online