Washington The al-Qaida of today is not solely a top-down network, in which potential terrorists report up through the hierarchy and, ultimately, to Osama bin Laden.
Instead, it is like a Hydra, the mythological serpent with many heads: operatives directed from the top; religiously motivated guerrillas with aspirations of autonomy; minor-leaguers with deadly intentions, such as would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid.
The al-Qaida described by the congressional inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks is one of a large, disjointed movement with many resources available around the world.
The report released Thursday primarily was a review of the performance of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies before the attacks. It also contained a detailed analysis of al-Qaida and its capabilities.
Bin Laden's network mounts operations in at least four ways, the report says:
- A "top-down approach" using skilled operatives, as in the Sept. 11 attacks. Some of these attacks may take years of planning.
- Training "amateurs" like Reid, for relatively unsophisticated strikes.
- Providing direct support for local followers. As an example, the report points to a group of Jordanians who plotted to bomb U.S. and Israeli tourist targets in Amman, Jordan's capital, at the millennium. That attack was broken up by security services, and some senior al-Qaida operatives were charged.
- Providing long-term support for guerrilla groups.
"Its organizational and command structures, which employ many activists who are not formal members of the organization, make it difficult to determine where al-Qaida ends and other radical groups begin," the report says.
Since the report was finished seven months ago, counterterrorism officials say bin Laden's network has been dismantled to a significant degree. But they acknowledge it remains capable of doing harm.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, much of the group's leadership has turned up in either Iran or Pakistan. Only bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, are thought to remain in the wilderness between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Many of those in Pakistan have been detained, including alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. The status of the group in Iran -- which includes Saif al-Adil, probably the No. 3 man left at large in the network -- is unclear. The Iranians say they have detained some of them.
Suicide bombings in May in Saudi Arabia and Morocco are demonstrative of the kind of operations al-Qaida may be turning to. The Saudi bombings, at housing compounds inhabited largely by Westerners, appear to have been orchestrated by senior al-Qaida lieutenants, some in Saudi Arabia and some in Iran. Thirty-four died, including nine attackers.
U.S. counterterrorism officials have some evidence al-Qaida financed and guided the Moroccan attack from overseas, as well. Officials describe the attackers as less sophisticated than those in Saudi Arabia; still, 44 people died, including 12 suicide bombers.