By Stan Crock Al Qaeda is certainly walking on eggshells worldwide these days. No more cozy mountain training camps or secure command posts in Afghanistan. The U.S., and governments allied with it, continue to hunt down terrorist cells from Buffalo to Bologna. But Osama bin Laden & Co. is proving remarkably nimble -- if it's responsible for the recent attacks in Indonesia and Kenya, as the Bush Administration believes. The group's "capacity to inflict pain remains largely intact," says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism specialist and RAND's vice-president for external relations.
That's worrisome enough. But many national-security experts are also concerned that fringe terror groups that have had limited contacts in the past with al Qaeda could line up with Osama's killers if the U.S. invades Iraq this winter. From loyalists of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein to Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Kashmiri and Chechen separatists, all could find common ground in a war scenario.
That prospect points up the tension between the Bush Administration's twin goals of combating terrorism and ousting Saddam. "As we're fighting another war, the war on terrorism isn't conveniently going to go on pause," says Matthew Levitt, a senior fellow in terrorism studies at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Instead, we may have an increase in attacks."
QUICK ADJUSTMENT. It's a complex picture, Hoffman explains. On one level, the recent assaults in Kenya and Indonesia demonstrate that al Qaeda is "weakened and in decline." The terrorist group has been forced to focus on softer and more accessible targets, such as bombing resorts and shooting at passenger jets with shoulder-launched missiles. At the same time, such attacks show its resiliency and adaptability. Al Qaeda "seek[s] to identify and exploit new opportunities," Hoffman says.
Among the next possibilities of concern to Hoffman: Car and truck bombings, which occurred in Bombay shortly after September 11 but were overshadowed by the New York and Washington attacks, and strikes on chemical plants aimed at creating intentional Bhopals (the Indian plant where an accidental chemical gas leak in 1984 killed more than 3,000 people and left almost as many permanently disabled). Other possibilities are attacks on marine targets, a favored tactic of the Tamil Tigers, and anthrax-like assaults, which could be hard to trace.
The history of guerilla warfare and terrorism isn't encouraging, either. From the National Liberation Front in Vietnam in the 1960s to the Palestinian Liberation Front in Lebanon during the 1980s, these groups lost thousands in combat, but as long as the leadership remained intact, terrorist activities continued.
DELEGATING TERROR. Here's a disconcerting thought put forth by some experts on terrorism: Bin Laden may be adapting corporate management techniques to run his network. In hiding, he seems to be managing al Qaeda as if he were a chief exec, focusing on broad strategy while delegating implementation to deputies.
And he seems to have a line of succession should anything happen to him. He has long acted as a venture capitalist, the argument goes, seeking out ideas from the bottom of his organization and then either bankrolling them himself or raising the capital. And he's also a "revolutionary philanthropist," funneling money to like-minded groups, from Kashmir to Chechnya to the West Bank.
It's no accident that bin Laden reemerged as the calls for tough action against Saddam grew more strident, says Daniel Benjamin, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies who previously served as terrorism expert at the National Security Council. Benjamin is concerned that the interests of bin Laden, who views himself as a leader of the Islamic world, and Saddam are starting to converge. And the bombing in Bali is a message from al Qaeda that it will try to exact a price on any country -- even a Muslim country -- that backs the U.S., he says. He thinks the Bush team will have to factor such efforts to galvanize extremist groups into any war scenario involving Saddam.
DISGUSTED WITH SADDAM? One plus for the U.S.: Al Qaeda's ability to capitalize on the turmoil may depend heavily on how the Iraqis respond. A Dec. 4 report by the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit advocacy group, suggests that ordinary Iraqis might hail U.S. troops as liberators during a march to Baghdad. That's what happened a year ago, when happy Afghans freed from Taliban repression took off their veils and trimmed their beards.
Indeed, ICG interviews with dozens of ordinary Iraqis disclosed a surprising amount of candor about their disgust with Saddam and their support for a U.S.-led attack. Such images shown on the Arab TV network al Jazeera would dull bin Laden's appeal after a U.S. intervention.
Bin Laden is pretty slick, though. He has managed to convince many in the Arab world that even when the U.S. was supporting Muslims in the Balkans, Washington was really in cahoots with Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic. Go figure.
NONSENSE THAT RESONATES. Now he claims responsibility not only for the U.S. economic slowdown but also corporate scandals like Enron and the loss of confidence in business, according to Hoffman. Bin Laden says he'll be able to defeat America, just as he defeated the Soviet Union (never mind the logic). As the al Qaeda leader paints it, the U.S. is "poised on the precipice, and he's using terrorism to shove us over," Hoffman says.
The fact that such nonsense still has resonance in some quarters of the Muslim world is something policymakers must confront. The solution, experts say, is political, educational, and economic reform in autocratic Arab regimes, so that dissent has an outlet other than through Islamic extremism. Alas, that could take decades. Even if Saddam is gone by spring, terrorism "is a problem that's going to be with us for at least a generation," says Benjamin. That's a sobering, but probably realistic assessment. 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