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Al-Qaida keeps busy, mobile, capable of terrorist attacks | (KRT) Two years after al-Qaida dealt punishing blows to America's financial and political centers, the terrorist network has shifted shape under a relentless worldwide manhunt by the United States and its allies.

Flushed from its Afghan stronghold, its leadership ranks decimated and its ability to communicate hampered, al-Qaida increasingly is relying on affiliated groups in Southeast Asia and the Middle East to wage acts of terror in pursuit of their common dream of a pan-Islamic world, some terrorism experts say.

"The most profound development in the post 9-11 evolution of al-Qaida is its steadfast reliance on local and regional Islamist movements worldwide to advance its aims," said Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert at Singapore's Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies and author of "Inside al-Qaida."

"The new al-Qaida is a network of groups influenced by al-Qaida."

Those regional allies, who have been provided inspiration, assistance and occasionally funds by al-Qaida, have launched a flurry of deadly attacks against Western targets since Sept. 11, 2001, claiming the lives of hundreds around the globe. Al-Qaida itself hasn't been dormant, killing dozens in back-to-back attacks in May in Morocco and Saudi Arabia.

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The targets hit by al-Qaida and associates such as Jemaah Islamiyah have been "soft" - nightclubs in Bali, a U.S. hotel in Indonesia, Western compounds in Saudi Arabia, restaurants and a Jewish center in Morocco, a synagogue in Tunisia among them.

Though no attack has taken place on U.S. soil in the two years since Sept.-11 and al-Qaida remains on the run and under pressure, officials at the CIA, FBI and elsewhere in and out of government say it would be a grave mistake to assume the terrorists won't try to strike the United States again.

"Al-Qaida remains our number one concern," said Larry Mefford, the FBI's executive assistant director for counterterrorism. "And the reason for that is because they have demonstrated that they have no inhibitions and they have no rules." While he and other government officials, from President Bush on down, gird the American people for the long-term threat of terrorism, they are also quick to highlight the anti-terrorist successes of the last two years.

In that time, the United States and its allies have captured or killed two-thirds of al-Qaida's leadership, detained more than 3,000 followers, clamped down on the flow of money to the terrorists, disrupted sleeper cells and routed the Afghan training camps through which tens of thousands of men passed.

"We're on their trail, from Pakistan to the Philippines to the Horn of Africa," Bush told the American Legion last month.

A number of terrorist plots have been thwarted inside and outside the United States, government officials say, though they won't discuss specifics.

"It's really no exaggeration to say thousands of lives have been saved," a U.S. intelligence official said, speaking on the condition he not be named.

Although al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and his closest adviser, Ayman al-Zawahiri, remain elusive - and in fact emerged to taunt the United States in an audiotape and a rare videotape aired on the eve of the second anniversary of the attacks - other key leaders have been captured or killed. Among them: Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, al-Qaida military chief Mohammed Atef, financier Abu Zubaydah and Southeast Asia coordinator Hambali, head of Jemaah Islamiyah.

"We've obviously had major successes," said John Pistole, acting assistant director of the FBI Counterterrorism Division. "I think the analogy of a wounded animal is appropriate, though. Al-Qaida and its surrogates are committed to attacking the U.S. and U.S. interests and Western interests wherever and whenever they can. It's simply a matter of opportunity and ability."

While al-Qaida's ranks have been depleted, some worry that the organization is making strides in recruitment, particularly in the wake of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, which has proven extremely unpopular in the Arab world.

On an audiotape aired Wednesday by the Arabic satellite channel al-Jazeera, a speaker believed to be al-Zawahiri exhorts followers to "bury" U.S. troops in Iraq. "Devour the Americans just like the lions devour their prey," the speaker said.

U.S. military leaders in Iraq are reporting an influx of young Arab men intent on killing U.S. troops and causing mayhem.

Al-Qaida, which never made common cause with the secular government of now-deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, is believed to be fomenting some of the opposition and was blamed by a Kurdish security official for Wednesday's suicide attack on a U.S. intelligence compound in northern Iraq that claimed three lives.

"Over its life span, al-Qaida has constantly evolved and shown a surprising willingness to adapt its mission," Jessica Stern, a Harvard University expert on religious terrorism, wrote recently in Foreign Affairs. "This capacity for change has consistently made the group more appealing to recruits, attracted surprising new allies and, most worrisome from a Western perspective, made it harder to detect and destroy."

Al-Qaida has reinvented itself since the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. officials agree. As the United States has increased its security and reduced vulnerabilities in aviation and other sectors, the terrorist network has been pushed toward "soft" targets elsewhere, CIA and FBI officials say.

Some use the term "al-Qaida 2.0" to describe the post-Sept. 11 incarnation of Osama bin Laden's network. Others scoff at the label, saying that adaptability has always been al-Qaida's hallmark.

"It's not like they were sitting around sipping drinks outside in the sun and suddenly they had to run to caves. They have always been running at a certain level," said Ben Venzke, a private-sector terrorism analyst who consults with U.S. government agencies. "Al-Qaida is continuously morphing and has been from day one."

Venzke, whose company, IntelCenter, tracks terrorist attacks around the globe, said the number of strikes by al-Qaida and affiliates is at a record high.

"Never before have they been so operationally active in an attack capacity," he said, pointing to a cluster of strikes last fall.

Al-Qaida, which historically conducted one major operation a year, carried out back-to-back attacks in Casablanca and Riyadh in May, he noted.

"What's even more unsettling is we are seeing this incredible level of activity when al-Qaida is supposedly crushed or weakened or dead, or whatever else anybody wants to say," he said.

U.S. officials are careful not to say the network is on the ropes.

Al-Qaida retains a singular focus on hijacking airplanes or blowing them up even in the face of a massive effort to reduce aviation vulnerabilities, the FBI and Homeland Security Department caution.

"If they could take out - either hijack or blow up a plane over the continental U.S. right now - what a message that would send, despite all the billions we've spent, all the hardening of the cockpits, all the air marshals on flights," a senior FBI official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Beyond the threat to aviation, what keeps FBI officials and others charged with protecting the United States awake at night is al-Qaida's exploration of chemical and biological weapons.

"I don't think al-Qaida is as capable as they were to commit a spectacular attack right now" using conventional means, the FBI official said. "But again, what concerns me is the chem-bio."

Others offer differing assessments about al-Qaida's capacity to commit mass-casualty strikes along the lines of the Sept. 11 attacks, which claimed more than 3,000 lives.

"They are still capable of conducting attacks that could kill thousands," the U.S. intelligence official said.

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© 2003, Dallas Morning News Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services