Is anyone really surprised about Khalid Shaikh Mohammed's "confession" that U.S. military officials released last week? After all, we have heard for years that he was the al-Qaida mastermind behind 9/11 and other atrocities.
Now, Mohammed publicly has said so, albeit under duress. He indicated that torture induced part of his revelations. But this detail that he provided has at least as much importance: that undue pressure did not precede his testimony before a military tribunal.
Several conclusions beckon. One, Mohammed really does wish to talk truthfully about his deeds, perhaps to brag, although we have no way of separating fact from fiction. How much of what he said is simply noise? Moreover, we are seeing an incomplete version of his confession.
Two, Mohammed yearns to secure his place in al-Qaida and terrorism history. Three, he hopes to inspire followers and wannabes. Four, he seeks to evoke - at least in his brief moments of contrition - some sympathy. Five, he desires for the general public to understand and fear, as terrorism specialists long have, the sweeping scope of al-Qaida activities. Or, six, he has a seemingly contradictory goal: to lull listeners into a false sense of security because he, the "superterrorist" of grandiose schemes, is out of circulation.
Does any of that matter, though?
Mostly, no. As important as Mohammed might have been to al-Qaida, he no longer has much relevance beyond symbolism. What is playing out here has propaganda significance mostly for Mohammed himself and the Bush administration.
Still, those watching have more than entertainment to glean. There is an important and ominous lesson begging for attention and respect: that the pervasive and centrally but loosely directed al-Qaida of yesteryear no longer exists. But hold the celebration.
In its earlier incarnation, when the world had not yet braced itself for a war against terrorism, al-Qaida had numerous advantages. It could use its growing organizational ability, revolutionary fervor, furtive presence, expanding global reach and the element of surprise almost with impunity.
After the post-9/11 crackdown, especially the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan, al-Qaida metamorphosed into a different network with a whole host of groups. Some remain fastened to the original organization with as much zeal as ever. Others philosophically align themselves with it. And still others simply draw inspiration from it to behave badly.
Fully monitoring the new terrorism pandemic defies current global capabilities. The result is that, more than ever, we must anticipate the unexpected. It is only a matter of time before the next successful attack happens. And the ones after that.
I bring this up not to scare people but to urge them to prepare themselves for the evolving realities of terrorism. Although Mohammed failed to carry out every plot that he claimed and global authorities have thwarted many others since Sept. 11, it would be woefully unwise to decide - as some people have - that the worst is over. Plenty of terrorists stand ready to target the public officials, bridges, iconic structures, energy facilities and businesses that Mohammed discussed.
We are not safe - and will not be - until the international community eliminates, where possible, the sources of terrorism and decimates the implacable elements of the threat.