Extent of Bin Laden's Power Questioned

Last week, a new audiotape of Osama bin Laden appeared, in which the al Qaeda leader warned that preparations were under way for another attack against the United States. Some analysts question whether the al Qaeda leader still represents the threat he did more than four years ago.

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RENEE Montagne, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. President Bush and Pakistan's Prime Minister yesterday reaffirmed their commitment to fighting terrorism. Their Oval Office meeting follows last week's U.S. air strike in a remote region of Pakistan. The strike was aimed at al-Qaeda officials but reportedly killed 13 civilians.

The meeting also comes a week after Osama bin Laden issued a new tape threatening more attacks on the United States. However, some analysts question whether the al-Qaeda leader still represents the threat he did more than four years ago. NPR's national security correspondent Jackie Northam reports.

Mr. JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:

For more than a decade, Osama bin Laden openly created and developed his al-Qaeda network from bases in Sudan and Afghanistan, setting up sleeper cells training jihadists and planning attacks. After 9/11, all that changed. The U.S. military started hunting down Bin Laden and his network was driven underground, says Daniel Byman of Georgetown University.

Mr. DANIEL BYMAN (Professor, Georgetown University): The core of the organization, the group of the people surrounding bin Laden has been hit very hard. The sanctuary in Afghanistan was disrupted. There's been a worldwide manhunt. Lots of lieutenants have been captured and the senior leaders are on the run.

NORTHAM: As the al-Qaeda network fragmented, bin Laden's role has also been transformed. Mark Johnson, a terrorism expert with the University of Georgia, says bin Laden's main role now is to be a figure of influence.

Mr. MARK JOHNSON (Terrorism Expert, University of Georgia): And he does that by his past history and the things he has accomplished from the point of view of those who admire him and by emerging, occasionally, to spur on his followers. But in terms of issuing orders on a day-to-day basis, or even less frequently, that's simply not happening.

NORTHAM: But while the core of al-Qaeda has been disrupted, the popularity of the terrorist movement has grown considerably. Daniel Benjamin, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the author of a book, The Next Attack, says what we're seeing now is the rise of independent groups that act in the name of al-Qaeda but have a more local agenda. Benjamin points to the people who carried out the attacks on the transportation systems in Madrid and London.

Mr. DANIEL BENJAMIN (Senior Fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies): These self-starters are very much influenced by bin Laden and his ideas but are not part of the organization; and what this suggests is that we're dealing with a social movement. We can't rule out that we'll find some connections between these cells and some of the, shall we say, legacy organizations; but what is working most efficiently is the ideas, not the organization.

NORTHAM: In fact, the disorganization has helped place more power in hands of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Benjamin says Zarqawi was considered to be something of a maverick within the broader jihadist movement; and that al-Qaeda leaders were surprised at how quickly the Jordanian was able to set up operations in Iraq.

Benjamin says that while it's unlikely anyone is going to supplant bin Laden as a symbolic leader of al-Qaeda, Zarqawi may prove to be a challenge.

Mr. BENJAMIN: If the measure of one's importance in the movement is actually turning out terrorist acts, then yes, Zarqawi is a rival to bin Laden. And in terms of being the jihadist captain in Iraq, he's a vitally important figure to the movement right now; and Iraq is simply a huge part of the struggle.

NORTHAM: But Magnus Ranstorp, with the Swedish National Defense College and a leading al-Qaeda expert, says even though bin Laden may not have control in Iraq he would not discount his ability to launch large strategic attacks against the United States.

Mr. MAGNUS RANSTORP (Chief Scientist, Centre for Asymmetric Threat Studies, Swedish National Defense College): As long as he's at large the U.S. is at risk of being blindsided still by a major attack; but they're not in a hurry. When the time is right, they will initiate a similar type of attack like 9/11.

NORTHAM: Ranstorp says that attack took years to implement. Georgetown University's Professor Byman says while the top-down effort to direct operations has been badly damaged, the broader al-Qaeda network that was in place before 9/11 is still operational.

Mr. BYMAN: A lot of the people involved in al-Qaeda were logisticians, if you will. They knew how to get passports, or explosives, or other basic necessities for operations.

NORTHAM: Byman says that while the number of people involved in the network may have been reduced by counterterrorism efforts, they can still do a lot of damage. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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