One of the looming questions ahead of the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks is just how close the U.S. is to defeating the group that carried them out.
Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden knew the U.S. would retaliate after those attacks. So before they were launched, he began dispersing members of his group. He sent fighters home from training camps in Afghanistan. He nurtured supporters in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and North Africa. And he seemed to understand that he would have to turn al-Qaida into a fundamentally different group.
Barbara Sude tracked al-Qaida for the Central Intelligence Agency for many years, watching bin Laden and his followers long before the group became the brightest dot on the U.S. radar screen. As a result, she's uniquely positioned to say how today's al-Qaida is different from the one that attacked the U.S. 10 years ago. She doesn't see a defeated organization.
"It's become much more adaptable, and it's learned to live with moving around to different locations," says Sude, who now works for the Rand Corporation as an analyst. "They are taking people from other nationalities — they have a lot of Europeans and a lot of U.S. people also working for them — more than in the past."
Multiple Al-Qaida Branches
Intelligence officials estimate there are about 4,000 al-Qaida followers around the world, and they say the ranks of today's al-Qaida are younger, better educated and more geographically diverse than the group bin Laden created.
"Bin Laden always wanted to have different regional organizations joining the team," says Sude. "And it didn't necessarily work out for him when he was in Sudan or the early days in Afghanistan. But his organization seems to have achieved that to a degree in getting al-Qaida in Iraq, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb to join."
Al-Qaida in Iraq is in the process of making a comeback. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, is now the most potentially dangerous branch of the group taking aim at the U.S. It already has launched two attacks — the attempted airline bombing on Christmas Day 2009 and a failed cargo bomb plot last Thanksgiving. The third group, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb — based in North Africa — is helping funnel al-Qaida recruits to Somalia.
All this in spite of the U.S. raid that killed bin Laden in May.
Al-Qaida Weakened, Not Destroyed
"It is a bit rash, even despite the death of its founder and leader ... to count al-Qaida out yet," says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and professor at Georgetown University.
To be sure, al-Qaida is suffering because of U.S. drone attacks, assassinations and recent arrests, he says, but the group is adapting. "Even while al-Qaida central, or the core al-Qaida group, is substantially weakened compared to what it was even two or three years ago, the problem is that the periphery, those affiliates, are arguably even stronger today than they have ever been," says Hoffman.
Depending on how you count, al-Qaida now has seven or eight locations where they can plan, train and launch operations against the U.S., and they include places like Yemen and Somalia. In the run-up to Sept. 11, bin Laden had just one safe haven — Afghanistan.
Another worrying development: The number of groups embracing al-Qaida ideology also seems to keep growing. Just in the past month, al-Qaida has shown up in Nigeria. Military intelligence officials are now watching for signs of al-Qaida in Libya.
What is clear is that al-Qaida's ability to pop up where officials least expect it hasn't changed much — and that's what keeps former CIA analyst Barbara Sude on alert.
"You never know where they have people, how many they have, if they have a plot that is already in train," says Sude. "Bin Laden is dead ... and they could fade away, at least [al-Qaida] central could fade away. But did they have something already started? Are people moving into place?"
Exactly the sort of question her former colleagues at the CIA are looking into as the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 approaches.