French soldiers in a train station
From Time, with thanks to Jean-Luc.
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. . . .
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.