After Sept. 11, 2001, the world learned that counterterrorism specialists had seen that kind of attack coming, they just did not know when and where it would take place. In a similar sense, they saw yesterday's London bombings coming, too; they have been warning of such a strike on European soil for much of this year.
It took only a few hours for British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to conclude that the assault bore the "hallmarks of an al Qaeda-related attack." And while investigators were still sifting through the evidence, the available facts -- the British venue, the soft targets with economic importance, the timing during the Group of Eight summit in Scotland and the relatively simple operational techniques -- conformed almost precisely to the methods of what specialists describe as an evolving al Qaeda movement.
Now more a brand than a tight-knit group, al Qaeda has responded to four years of intense pressure from the United States and its allies by dispersing its surviving operatives, distributing its ideology and techniques for mass-casualty attacks to a wide audience on the Internet, and encouraging new adherents to act spontaneously in its name.
Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, terrorism experts in and out of government have warned that the movement has appeared to gain ground, particularly in Europe, where a large, mobile, technology-savvy and well-educated Muslim population includes some angry and alienated young people attracted to the call of holy war against the West.
The simultaneous bombings of four rush-hour commuter trains in Madrid on March 11, 2004, the shooting death of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh last November and recent preemptive arrests made by European police suggest a less top-down, more grass-roots-driven al Qaeda. The movement's ability to carry off sophisticated, border-crossing attacks such as those Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants mounted against New York and the Pentagon almost four years ago appears diminished, some experts say.
Yet al Qaeda's chief ideologues -- bin Laden, his lieutenant Ayman Zawahiri and, more recently, the Internet-fluent Abu Musab Zarqawi -- have been able to communicate freely to their followers, even while in hiding. In the past 18 months, they have persuaded dozens of like-minded young men, operating independently of the core al Qaeda leadership, to assemble and deliver suicide or conventional bombs in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Spain, Egypt and now apparently London.
As in the Madrid bombings, these looser adherents sometimes copy al Qaeda's signature method of simultaneous explosions against symbolic or economic targets, an approach repeatedly advocated by bin Laden in his recent recorded speeches.
"No more 9/11, but lots of 3/11, especially in Europe," declared the final slide in a PowerPoint presentation about al Qaeda's evolution presented at numerous U.S. government forums this year by terrorism specialist and former CIA case officer Marc Sageman, a clinical psychologist who has recently studied al Qaeda's European cells.
The British bombings "seem to be very much consistent with a Sunni jihadist movement that is overall as strong as ever but more decentralized, in which attacks are being instigated and carried out in more places than just the core leadership hiding in their caves in South Asia," said a former senior U.S. intelligence official.
Al Qaeda's evolution from headquarters-planned conspiracies toward diffuse ideological incitement and tactical support is consistent with bin Laden's long-stated goal for the organization he founded on an Afghan ridge in the summer of 1988. For years, bin Laden has emphasized his desire to be remembered as a vanguard, an inspiring leader whose spark would light a spreading fire among all the world's Muslims, causing them to revolt en masse against Christians, Jews and their allies in the Middle East.
"According to Osama bin Laden's thinking, there are no dormant cells," Abu Jandal, one of bin Laden's former bodyguards in Afghanistan, said in a recently published interview in the Arabic-language newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi. "Every element of al Qaeda is self-activated. Whoever finds a chance to attack just goes ahead. The decision is theirs. This is regardless of whether they pledged allegiance to Sheik Osama bin Laden or not."
During the last year, the thinking of bin Laden and other key fugitive leaders -- as communicated in taped addresses and on password-protected Internet message boards -- has been influenced by the course of the war in Iraq. Last November, Zarqawi pledged allegiance to bin Laden, and by doing so created at least the appearance of a unified al Qaeda approach to the war, with Zarqawi operating as the frontline commander and bin Laden as his spiritual and political mentor.
Indeed, Zarqawi's pledge to bin Laden has offered a model of the new kind of al Qaeda outsourcing. "From al Qaeda's point of view, it makes it look like they're in on the biggest action going right now in Iraq," said the former U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "From Zarqawi's point of view, it's brand recognition -- you're a franchisee, whether Burger King or al Qaeda."
Both bin Laden and Zarqawi have emphasized two prominent themes in their approach to the Iraq war: driving a wedge between the United States and its allies, and bleeding American and allied economies. Both goals may be reflected in yesterday's London attacks.
Bin Laden and some of his lieutenants have strongly emphasized economic issues related to Iraq in recent postings and speeches. Bin Laden believes that he and his followers helped destroy the Soviet Union by tying its 40th Army down in a long, costly war in Afghanistan during the 1980s. These days bin Laden says again and again that he intends to do the same to the United States and its allies in Iraq. In his videotaped speech to the American people last November, on the eve of the U.S. election, he boasted of "the success of the bleed-until-bankruptcy plan."
Some terrorism analysts said bin Laden's role as inspiration -- if not direct commander -- of the British operation appears clear.
"It doesn't matter whether it's al Qaeda-directed or al Qaeda-inspired. The long-term effect on the jihadist movement is likely to be the same from the attacks: a source of recruitment, inspiration and motivation," said Roger Cressey, a former senior counterterrorism official in the Clinton and Bush administrations.
"I do not really believe there is such a thing as al Qaeda, the organization; there is al Qaeda, the mindset," said Yosri Fouda, senior investigative reporter in London for the al-Jazeera satellite television network, the only journalist known to have interviewed Sept. 11 planners Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh. "This is what I find much scarier. Your ability to predict is reduced to a minimal level."
Terrorism specialists said the current threat in Europe was from a new generation of recruits who might be much less connected to the core of al Qaeda.
"The cells that are forming are getting younger, and they're forming over the Internet," in a significant change from the profile of the jihadist recruit prior to Sept. 11, when al Qaeda often relied on more mature veterans of its Afghan training facilities, Sageman said in a telephone interview yesterday.
Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp., a research institution, said the State Department asserts that as many as 4,000 terrorism suspects have been arrested worldwide since Sept. 11, 2001. "But they are being replaced as fast as we can kill or capture them," he said. "Al Qaeda has this capacity to sustain itself. Even if they are reduced as an organization, they've been able to enlist any number of others to do their bidding."
The tactics and targeting in the London bombings may also suggest what Rand Beers, a former White House counterterrorism official and adviser to last year's Democratic presidential campaign, calls the "devolution" of al Qaeda. "We've seen a willingness to engage in smaller, less iconic kinds of targets," said Beers, noting that attacks like those in Madrid and London were technically unsophisticated and inexpensive to mount, yet they caused devastation and panic in just minutes.
It isn't clear whether the London attacks involved suicide bombers or timed explosives left in place, but either way, operations of this kind do not require advance training or long periods of time to execute, according to bomb-making specialists.
"We didn't see anyone try to fly into Buckingham Palace or take down the [British Telecom] tower," said Daniel Benjamin, a former White House counterterrorism official who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "It doesn't show that kind of need to top oneself that al Qaeda has shown in the past" when bin Laden and other key leaders had more time and space to plan their operations.
Even the relatively unsophisticated nature of the attacks in London has generated soul-searching about whether effective countermeasures exist against an Islamic extremist movement that appears able to "self-generate" new terrorists, as a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official put it. "The impact of it is significant. It shows they have been able to overcome a well-developed security architecture in London," the former official said. "It shows that al Qaeda and associated groups and fellow travelers still have the ability to conduct an effective operation."
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.