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Al Qaeda or Not? U.S., U.K. Differ On Its Likely Role

Gap Reveals Basic Questions
About the Group's Strength
And Its Possible Evolution

WASHINGTON -- As details of the London airliner plots emerge, counterterrorism experts are reconsidering what they once thought they knew about al Qaeda.

While they had believed that the terror network was on the ropes, they are starting to think it simply has changed shape and grown more complex.

Even senior U.S. law-enforcement officials say they aren't sure what form al Qaeda takes these days, or what its precise relationship is with a network of sympathetic and cooperative jihadist groups. That helps explain the gap between American and British descriptions of the bomb plot that was disrupted this week. U.S. officials have said they saw signs of an al Qaeda link, and British officials have pointedly declined to finger al Qaeda.

As that suggests, there isn't agreement on what exactly constitutes an al Qaeda operation these days. In this case, U.S. officials say they think the plan to blow up multiple airliners in flight came from jihadists in Pakistan, and that the execution then was carried out in Britain. Pakistan, in the words of one senior U.S. official, was the home of "the big brain" behind the operation.

But while Islamist groups in Pakistan clearly are sympathetic with al Qaeda, the relationships between them and al Qaeda's leaders are mysterious, leading to different conclusions about the meaning of such a link.

"Huge gaps remain in our understanding of the group's mindset, decision-making processes, organizational dynamics as well as command and control relationships," says Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism expert at the Rand Corporation think-tank.

Pakistani officials said Friday that the plot to bomb flights from Britain to the U.S. with liquid explosives had a link to al Qaeda through a British citizen of Pakistani ancestry who has been arrested in Pakistan. They said that indicated the conspiracy had a broad international dimension.

British officials, however, distanced themselves from such assertions. The Bank of England froze the assets of 19 people early Friday, and a spokesman for the United Kingdom Treasury said investigators are under pressure to reach a speedy conclusion on the issue of al Qaeda involvement but so far are unable to do so. "It is too early to reach a conclusion," the spokesman said.

A determination of al Qaeda involvement would simplify the freezing of assets world-wide because it would allow Britain to freeze assets under a United Nations resolution designating al Qaeda supporters, the spokesman said. If neither al Qaeda nor Afghanistan's former Taliban rulers are found to be involved, the spokesman added, the funds would be frozen only in the U.K. or, with a European Union resolution, in Europe. "We would like to move quickly with the most far-reaching measure, but right now we can't," said the spokesman.

Some allies speculate that American officials would like to show links to al Qaeda because it could help the Bush administration's political message about the importance of fighting the war on terror. However, blaming al Qaeda also could undermine the administration's argument that it is waging a war over in Iraq and Afghanistan partly in order to avoid having to fight the terrorists in America and Western Europe someday. The idea of an explicit link to al Qaeda also underscores the U.S. failure so far to crush the organization, nearly five years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

The divergent views of al Qaeda's possible involvement, as well as a host of leaks about the British takedown operation, led British officials to call their American counterparts on Thursday night insisting that U.S. officials refrain from saying anything more about the plot and linking it to al Qaeda, according to a British diplomat.

Whether al Qaeda had any involvement in the plot or not, the links to Pakistan and the sophistication of the scheme worry counterterrorism officials, because they illustrate how little is known about how some of these groups operate. "After this is all done, I am sure we are going to be going back and re-examining what we mean by al Qaeda and al Qaeda-linked terrorism," says a senior British counterterrorism official close to the London investigation.

Madrid Train Bombing

An official of the Federal Bureau of Investigation says, "We are clearly going to have to rethink some of our assumptions. This one certainly appears to hark back to more structure and more planning and more expertise than we thought they could muster."

Assumptions about al Qaeda first changed in the aftermath of the March 2004 bombings in Madrid, in which an Islamist group said to be "inspired" by al Qaeda, rather than a formal part of the organization, was blamed for the attack. This gave rise to new thinking among counterterrorism experts that al Qaeda franchises and wannabes had taken over as the main threat.

Last summer's bombings of London's mass-transit system by British-born Muslims only furthered the idea that so-called homegrown terrorists were responsible. Marc Sageman, an expert on jihadist groups, defines such homegrown terrorists as self-selecting, self-radicalizing, self-directing individuals or groups of people who try to launch attacks without any outside direction. "You don't need al Qaeda anymore to be a member of al Qaeda. You can go on the Internet, meet other people and make your own terrorism," Dr. Sageman says.

But months after the 2005 London bus bombing, the theory got turned on its head when it emerged that two of the London terrorists had traveled to Pakistan to meet al Qaeda bomb makers and to record suicide farewell videos.

Dr. Hoffman of Rand Corp. says he understands why prominent analysts might have arrived at the conclusion that al Qaeda, as a military organization, was moribund. The feeling was that it had lost so much of its leadership that it was incapable of doing anything but inspire others. But Dr. Hoffman believes the notion was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how the group operates.

"We are talking about a nimble, flexible and resilient entity," he says. "There has never been an either/or with al Qaeda. It has always functioned from the top down and at the same time has encouraged free-lance activity and franchises to operate on their own. This is what makes them so resilient."

'Decapitation Strategy'

The U.S. approach to destroying al Qaeda has primarily used a "kill or capture" strategy to try to eliminate the group's leaders. The thinking has been that the experience, charisma and organizational skills of the top men would be difficult or impossible to replace. But this "decapitation strategy" appears to be failing against the organization -- especially as it grows into a social movement that links like-minded groups feeding off anti-American sentiment to attract new recruits and sources of funding.

U.S. and British intelligence officials now are concentrating on finding ways to undermine al Qaeda by disrupting the means by which new terrorists are recruited and imbued with violent zealotry. "Islamic radicalization is something that is a subject of significant interest and study within the intelligence community," says Charles E. Allen, intelligence chief of the Homeland Security Department.

But preventing radicalization in democracies isn't easy. Police agencies instead believe the only way to detect and disrupt al Qaeda is by watching for the petty crimes that terrorists often commit, such as theft and document fraud, to be able to plan a major attack.

-- David Crawford contributed to this article.

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