STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Fighting continues today between Lebanon's army and a group that says it's inspired by al-Qaida. That group is one of many militant organizations that made a choice - either to stay independent or to affiliate in some way with the best-known name in terrorism. Since 9/11, dozens of radical groups have claimed links to al-Qaida. There are groups in the Middle East and North Africa and elsewhere.
Some are brand new. Others are long-standing. Some are really part of al-Qaida, and others have just taken the name for their equivalent of the sign out front. Either way, they present evidence of an expanding revitalized al-Qaida, as NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports.
MARY LOUISE KELLY: Here's the calculation for a local terrorist group. On the downside, joining al-Qaida makes it harder for members to move around and harder to raise funds openly. But on the plus side, there may be monetary support from al-Qaida itself. Publicity will go up. That's good for recruitment. And, seen through the eyes of a would-be jihadist, al-Qaida means prestige.
Mr. DANIEL BENJAMIN (Brookings Institution; Former Director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council): Al-Qaida, because of its perceived success - especially in Iraq - is the team you want to be on.
KELLY: That's Daniel Benjamin, former director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council, now at the Brookings Institution.
Benjamin says the appearance of new offshoot groups across the Middle East and North Africa is good news for al-Qaida's core leadership, believed to be holed up in Pakistan.
Mr. BENJAMIN: Remember, what al-Qaida wants most is to mobilize the Muslim world. And so every time a new group signs on, particularly takes the name, it's a coup for them.
KELLY: One of the most significant recent developments along these lines is the appearance, in Algeria, of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. This is not a new group. Under its previous guise, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, it worked for years to overthrow the Algerian government. But this past September brought a formal announcement that the group's ambitions were about to widen.
Mr. AYMAN AL-ZAWAHIRI (Official of al-Qaida): (Arabic spoken)
KELLY: Ayman Al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida's number two official, announcing there that the Algerian group had joined forces with Osama bin Laden. Since then, the group has stepped up attacks, including an April suicide bombing in Algiers that killed some 30 people.
That's worrisome enough. But the real fear among intelligence officials is that the new partnership with al-Qaida brings new obligations to attack what's known as the far enemy - the West. This month, police in Milan arrested several members of the group who were allegedly planning attacks in Italy.
Rob Richer, a former deputy director of the CIA's clandestine service, says the advantage for would-be terrorists is once you're inside Europe, you can move around anywhere.
Mr. ROB RICHER (Former Deputy Director, Central Intelligence Agency): And then you disappear. You disappear into these great populations of second and third-generation North Africans who are living in those countries. And you can't be tracked. French security services will tell you, there are certain population areas of France they don't go into. They can't operate there.
KELLY: Along with developments in Algeria, this spring also saw a pair of explosions in neighboring Morocco. Richer says this area of the world - North Africa - is his single greatest concern right now in the war on terror. But he cautions against concluding that al-Qaida has launched a coordinated effort to destabilize North Africa.
Mr. RICHER: I don't believe there's a North African front leader who actually has day-to-day command and control, saying, tomorrow it's Morocco. Let's do Algiers next. What I do believe is there's probably someone who's got the portfolio, and he is in contact with cells, or cells are in contact with him. His agenda is to further al-Qaida's efforts in North Africa and probably into Europe.
KELLY: One more place to watch - Libya. U.S. intelligence officials say the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group has been on the cusp of joining al-Qaida for some time. It hasn't - yet. But Roger Cressey, a former White House counterterrorism official, says more Libyans have been showing up in senior positions in the al-Qaida hierarchy.
Mr. ROGER CRESSEY (Former White House Counterterrorism Official): Abu Faraj al-Libi, Abu Yahya al-Libi. What does that mean? It means we've seen North Africans become significant operational players within the remnants of al-Qaida's leadership. So, years ago, it was Egyptians and Saudis that ran the show. Now we're seeing the North Africans taking a more prominent role.
KELLY: And, Cressy says that marks a real shift in patterns of global terrorism.
Mr. CRESSY: For many years, we had worried about the east-west access - the threat coming from the east, be it Afghanistan, Pakistan or even now Iraq and the Gulf - moving to the west. Now, what we've seen is a north-south axis. From North Africa, we've seen groups and individuals moving into Europe. In some respects, it's the worst of both worlds.
KELLY: The most talked about al-Qaida-inspired group in recent weeks operates not from North Africa, but from a Palestinian refugee camp inside Lebanon. Fatah al-Islam emerged late last year. For more than a month now, it's been battling Lebanese security forces near Tripoli.
Fatah al-Islam's leader says he supports al-Qaida's ideas, but there's no evidence of direct contact with bin Laden's network.
A senior U.S. counterterrorism official tells NPR, quote, "Al-Qaida's been eager to merge with groups far and wide. But you have to prove you'll bring something to the relationship. Fatah al-Islam is too small and too unpredictable, and Lebanon is a quagmire even for al-Qaida, which is saying something," end quote. The official asked not to be named while speaking on intelligence matters.
Meanwhile, there's growing concern about a Palestinian al-Qaida cell forming inside Gaza. Here's professor Fawaz Gerges.
Professor FAWAZ GERGES (Chair of International Affairs and Middle Eastern Studies, Sarah Lawrence College): If Gaza descends into chaos, it would become much easier for al-Qaida like-minded groups to establish networks in Gaza.
KELLY: Gerges is chair of international affairs and Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College. Gerges argues that the fighting among rival Palestinian groups in Gaza sets the stage for al-Qaida to move in.
Prof. GERGES: Remember, al-Qaida breeds on chaos and war. And if the Palestinians descend into all-out war, in the next few weeks we'll likely witness the emergence of new networks who tend to subscribe to al-Qaida ideology.
KELLY: The senior U.S. counterterrorism official agrees, calling the situation worrisome, and adding there are early signs that Palestinians are more interested in al-Qaida's message than we've ever seen before.
If so, the situation in Gaza would fit a pattern.
Daniel Benjamin - the former National Security Council staffer - says worldwide, al-Qaida's appeal appears to be growing, and the core network has been revitalized.
Mr. BENJAMIN: The jihadist movement, essentially, has been growing and strengthening since the invasion of Iraq. Their ambitions are intact, and their willingness to try big, dangerous conspiracies is there.
KELLY: The good news in all this, says Benjamin, is none of the new offshoot groups appear capable of directly threatening the United States. And the bad news, al-Qaida-linked groups are, quote, "ever more active in more parts of the world." And that, Benjamin adds with a sigh, that is not the outcome we wanted.
Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.
INSKEEP: You can get a look at an interactive map of al-Qaida and associated groups just by going to npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: This is NPR News.