As Taliban forces cling to an ever-shrinking corner of southern Afghanistan, the second front in the war against terrorism--the pursuit of the Al Qaeda network in as many as 50 countries--is fast growing in importance. This is the "different kind of war" the Bush Administration has been talking about since September, a submerged conflict of smoke, mirrors, and clandestine operations--and it could take years to prosecute fully. It could also call for whole new levels of activity. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, for example, now wants to assign FBI agents to work directly with top U.S. military brass around the globe, all to speed up the hunt for terrorists and their allies.
In this war, it seems, the distinctions between civilian and soldier are dissolving rapidly. The trouble with the conflict is that it will never be completely clear when it is time to declare victory. Some estimates of the Al Qaeda membership outside Afghanistan run to 15,000, and it is impossible to identify all the affiliates at work. "The big worry is that you have one or two other cells planning big attacks. They can involve a year or more of planning and waiting," says Alain Grignard, a Belgian police specialist on Islamic terrorist networks. One top Italian prosecutor says many Al Qaeda associates flew to Afghanistan after September 11 to regroup and get new assignments. France and Britain could be the next targets, according to investigators.
Yet thanks to an unprecedented manhunt mounted by police agencies from dozens of countries, at least the contours of Al Qaeda's global web are starting to come to light. The gains are hard-won. In the U.S., law-enforcement agencies now have some 1,100 suspects in custody, and the Justice Dept. has compiled a list of 5,000 it wants to interview, though few charges have been filed. A lot of the focus is now on Moroccan-born Zacarias Moussaoui, who sought flight training in the U.S. He may be part of a group that planned a follow-up attack in Europe after September 11, but he has not been charged.
The Europeans may soon have more to show for their efforts than their American counterparts. On Nov. 18, Spanish police charged eight suspects with accessory to murder for involvement in the attacks on the World Trade Center and membership in Al Qaeda. National Court Judge Balthazar Garzón says evidence including taped phone conversations and links to lead hijacker Muhammad Atta show the eight "were directly involved" in the September 11 attacks. All eight proclaim their innocence.
In Germany, meanwhile, no fewer than 600 agents of the Federal Criminal Agency have been investigating Al Qaeda operations. Police have pieced together the complex puzzle of how September 11 hijackers Muhammad Atta, Ziad Jarrah, and Marwan Al-Shehri planned the New York and Washington attacks from a nondescript apartment in Hamburg.
WEAK LINK. More information may come out of other trials. On Dec. 20, Italian prosecutors will begin trying eight suspected members of a North African movement, the Salafist Group for Preaching & Combat, which has been affiliated with Al Qaeda and is charged with planning a cyanide-gas attack in France. The trial could shed light on vital links between Al Qaeda and North African terrorist groups, which have been trained and encouraged by bin Laden to expand throughout Europe. While sentences for trafficking in arms and dangerous chemicals are relatively light, Italy is preparing a law with stiffer penalties for international terrorists.
Britain may start generating more leads as well. Traditionally, it had an open-door policy for political refugees from around the Middle East and a laissez-faire attitude toward them once they settled. That is in marked contrast to France, which has tightly watched over its 7.5 million-strong Muslim community--to the point of having agents of its internal security service convert to Islam so as to penetrate Muslim groups. In Britain, thousands of Islamic radicals sought refuge, including people such as Jordanian cleric Abu Qatada, who is thought to be an Al Qaeda operative. He denies this. Now, British intelligence services have drawn up a list of 20 top Islamic militants, including Qatada, to be arrested as soon as a controversial anti-terrorism bill becomes law, most likely by the end of December. The bill will allow internment without trial.
If U.S. and allied military operations in Afghanistan culminate in a clear victory, these law-enforcement efforts will get a big boost. For the first time, Al Qaeda may have nowhere to take refuge. Bin Laden and his top lieutenants have been chased out of Saudi Arabia and Sudan. Taliban-ruled Afghanistan was their last redoubt. Ten or 20 years ago, many countries--Syria, Iran, Sudan, and North Korea, just to cite a few examples--looked the other way as terrorist groups set up shop in their nations. East German security services even aided notorious terrorist networks such as the Red Army Faction. "The fact that no state will now be there to give [terrorists] territory for their camps, to sponsor them, is a very big difference," says Roland Jacquard, head of the Paris-based International Observatory for the Study of Terrorism. And even "sleepers" need direction. "If bin Laden and others are killed, the Al Qaeda cells would lose their most important reference and would be immensely weakened," says Antonella Caruso, a specialist on Islamic movements at the Center for Mediterranean Studies in Lugano, Switzerland.
A crucial factor in the war against terrorism will be the extent of cooperation among Western police forces. Traditionally, cross-border consultation among police forces has been abysmal. That is changing. Within two weeks of the September 11 attacks, European leaders proposed legislation on a common European arrest warrant. And banking authorities in normally guarded Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and Austria have been opening their books. These developments, says Spanish terrorism expert and member of Parliament Gustavo Aristegui, "were unthinkable a year ago."
One big question mark is transatlantic intelligence-sharing. There are complaints from Europeans that Washington takes information but rarely offers it. Robert Rotberg, a terrorism expert at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, says the U.S. will have to adjust. "It means finding ways of sharing info at a level we haven't done," says Rotberg. "There are people in the CIA and Pentagon who would be leery of that--and with reason. But it still has to be done."
LONE OPERATOR. All the cooperation in the world won't snuff out the terror threat entirely. If Al Qaeda is broken, the spectacular attacks that only years of elaborate planning can produce could well end. But isolated, less dramatic acts of violence could occur, driven by lone operators whose actions may be much harder to detect and prevent.
This war is not going to be won by B52s, Delta Force, and spy satellites. It is going to require huge amounts of intelligence-sharing, legal reforms, and targeting of financial networks, to say nothing of diplomatic efforts to keep wavering countries in the anti-terror coalition. Afghanistan is only the beginning.
By John Rossant in Paris, with Kerry Capell in London, Jack Ewing in Frankfurt, Gail Edmondson in Rome, and Paul Magnuson in Washington