Just four months ago, Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network had the organization and resources to carry out the most deadly terrorist attack ever against the United States, killing more than 3,000 people in a brazen airline hijacking plot that took nearly two years to devise at locations around the globe.
Four months later, sustained bombing by U.S. forces in Afghanistan has reduced al-Qaida”s training camps to rubble, the group”s leaders are dead or on the run and hundreds of fighters linked to al-Qaida and its allied Taliban militia have been rounded up by U.S. forces. Governments and banks worldwide are working in concert to cut off the group”s financial resources.
The result is a severely hobbled organization that no longer has the capability to plan or launch a new operation on the scale of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington, senior U.S. officials and leading terrorism experts say.
Yet authorities in the United States and Europe remain deeply worried about the possibility of more terrorist attacks of smaller scope.
Even more alarming is the possibility that bin Laden and his closest associates might have pre-approved another act of terrorism on the magnitude of the Sept. 11 hijackings, Bush administration officials said. At least a half dozen alleged terrorist plots connected to al-Qaida have been unmasked since Sept. 11, including plans to blow up the U.S. embassy in Paris and to attack U.S. interests in Singapore.
“We don”t know how much they have in the can,” said deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley. “What we worry about is that there are operations already trained, populated, planned and funded, and they are simply waiting for an opportunity.”
Only two of al-Qaida”s top 10 leaders have been confirmed dead by U.S. intelligence officials.
“It”s been crippled in Afghanistan and crippled in Pakistan, but it hasn”t been put out of business by any stretch,” said one senior U.S. law enforcement official. “They are still capable of doing a lot of damage.”
On Dec. 22, British native Richard Reid tried to ignite his explosives-filled sneakers on a jetliner bound from Paris to Miami. Reid, a petty criminal and recent convert to militant Islam, raises the unnerving possibility that freelance terrorists might be plotting attacks with minimal support or direction from organized networks, officials said.