New York Times
September 11, 2005


By Mark Danner

I. Seldom has an image so clearly marked the turning of the world. One
of man's mightiest structures collapses into an immense white blossom
of churning, roiling dust, metamorphosing in 14 seconds from hundred-
story giant of the earth into towering white plume reaching to heaven.
The demise of the World Trade Center gave us an image as newborn to
the world of sight as the mushroom cloud must have appeared to those
who first cast eyes on it. I recall vividly the seconds flowing by as
I sat gaping at the screen, uncomprehending and unbelieving, while
Peter Jennings's urbane, perfectly modulated voice murmured calmly on
about flights being grounded, leaving unacknowledged and unexplained -
unconfirmed -- the incomprehensible scene unfolding in real time
before our eyes. "Hang on there a second," the famously unflappable
Jennings finally stammered -- the South Tower had by now vanished into
a boiling caldron of white smoke -- "I just want to check one
thing...because...we now have....What do we have? We don't...?"
Marveling later that "the most powerful image was the one I actually
didn't notice while it was occurring," Jennings would say simply that
"it was beyond our imagination."

Looking back from this moment, precisely four years later, it still
seems almost inconceivable that 10 men could have done that -- could
have brought those towers down. Could have imagined doing what was
"beyond our imagination." When a few days later, the German composer
Karlheinz Stockhausen remarked that this was "the greatest work of art
in the history of the cosmos," I shared the anger his words called
forth but couldn't help sensing their bit of truth: "What happened
there -- spiritually -- this jump out of security, out of the
everyday, out of life, that happens sometimes poco a poco in art." No
"little by little" here: however profoundly evil the art, the sheer
immensity and inconceivability of the attack had forced Americans
instantaneously to "jump out of security, out of the everyday, out of
life" and had thrust them through a portal into a strange and
terrifying new world, where the inconceivable, the unimaginable, had
become brutally possible.

In the face of the unimaginable, small wonder that leaders would
revert to the language of apocalypse, of crusade, of "moral clarity."
Speaking at the National Cathedral just three days after the attacks,
President Bush declared that while "Americans do not yet have the
distance of history...our responsibility to history is already clear:
to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil." Astonishing words
-- imaginable, perhaps, only from an American president, leading a
people given naturally in times of crisis to enlisting national power
in the cause of universal redemption. "The enemy is not a single
political regime or person or religion or ideology," declared the
National Security Strategy of the United States of America for 2002.
"The enemy is terrorism -- premeditated, politically motivated
violence perpetrated against innocents." Not Islamic terrorism or
Middle Eastern terrorism or even terrorism directed against the United
States: terrorism itself. "Declaring war on 'terror,"' as one military
strategist later remarked to me, "is like declaring war on air power."
It didn't matter; apocalypse, retribution, redemption were in the air,
and the grandeur of the goal must be commensurate with the enormity of
the crime. Within days of the attacks, President Bush had launched a
"global war on terror."

Today marks four years of war. Four years after the attack on Pearl
Harbor, U.S. troops ruled unchallenged in Japan and Germany. During
those 48 months, Americans created an unmatched machine of war and
decisively defeated two great enemies.

How are we to judge the global war on terror four years on? In this
war, the president had warned, "Americans should not expect one battle
but a lengthy campaign." We could expect no "surrender ceremony on a
deck of a battleship," and indeed, apart from the president's abortive
attempt on the U.S.S. Lincoln to declare victory in Iraq, there has
been none. Failing such rituals of capitulation, by what "metric" --
as the generals say -- can we measure the progress of the global war
on terror?

Four years after the collapse of the towers, evil is still with us and
so is terrorism. Terrorists have staged spectacular attacks, killing
thousands, in Tunisia, Bali, Mombasa, Riyadh, Istanbul, Casablanca,
Jakarta, Madrid, Sharm el Sheik and London, to name only the best
known. Last year, they mounted 651 "significant terrorist attacks,"
triple the year before and the highest since the State Department
started gathering figures two decades ago. One hundred ninety-eight of
these came in Iraq, Bush's "central front of the war on terror" --
nine times the year before. And this does not include the hundreds of
attacks on U.S. troops. It is in Iraq, which was to serve as the first
step in the "democratization of the Middle East," that insurgents have
taken terrorism to a new level, killing well over 4,000 people since
April in Baghdad alone; in May, Iraq suffered 90 suicide-bombings.
Perhaps the "shining example of democracy" that the administration
promised will someday come, but for now Iraq has become a grotesque
advertisement for the power and efficacy of terror.

As for the "terrorist groups of global reach," Al Qaeda, according to
the president, has been severely wounded. "We've captured or killed
two-thirds of their known leaders," he said last year. And yet however
degraded Al Qaeda's operational capacity, nearly every other month, it
seems, Osama bin Laden or one of his henchmen appears on the world's
television screens to expatiate on the ideology and strategy of global
jihad and to urge followers on to more audacious and more lethal
efforts. This, and the sheer number and breadth of terrorist attacks,
suggest strongly that Al Qaeda has now become Al Qaedaism -- that
under the American and allied assault, what had been a relatively
small, conspiratorial organization has mutated into a worldwide
political movement, with thousands of followers eager to adopt its
methods and advance its aims. Call it viral Al Qaeda, carried by
strongly motivated next-generation followers who download from the
Internet's virtual training camp a perfectly adequate trade-craft in
terror. Nearly two years ago, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld,
in a confidential memorandum, posed the central question about the war
on terror: "Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more
terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are
recruiting, training and deploying against us?" The answer is clearly
no. "We have taken a ball of quicksilver," says the counterinsurgency
specialist John Arquilla, "and hit it with a hammer."

What has helped those little bits of quicksilver grow and flourish is,
above all, the decision to invade and occupy Iraq, which has left the
United States bogged down in a brutal, highly visible
counterinsurgency war in the heart of the Arab world. Iraq has become
a training ground that will temper and prepare the next generation of
jihadist terrorists and a televised stage from which the struggle of
radical Islam against the "crusader forces" can be broadcast
throughout the Islamic world. "Islamic extremists are exploiting the
Iraqi conflict to recruit new anti-U.S. jihadists," Porter J. Goss,
director of the C.I.A., told the Senate in February. "These jihadists
who survive will leave Iraq experienced in, and focused on, acts of
urban terrorism. They represent a potential pool of contacts to build
transnational terrorist cells, groups and networks in Saudi Arabia,
Jordan and other countries."

As the Iraq war grows increasingly unpopular in the United States -
scarcely a third of Americans now approve of the president's handling
of the war, and 4 in 10 think it was worth fighting -- and as more and
more American leaders demand that the administration "start figuring
out how we get out of there" (in the words of Senator Chuck Hagel, a
Republican), Americans confront a stark choice: whether to go on
indefinitely fighting a politically self-destructive counterinsurgency
war that keeps the jihadists increasingly well supplied with
volunteers or to withdraw from a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq that remains
chaotic and unstable and beset with civil strife and thereby hand Al
Qaeda and its allies a major victory in the war on terror's "central

Four years after we watched the towers fall, Americans have not
succeeded in "ridding the world of evil." We have managed to show
ourselves, our friends and most of all our enemies the limits of
American power. Instead of fighting the real war that was thrust upon
us on that incomprehensible morning four years ago, we stubbornly
insisted on fighting a war of the imagination, an ideological struggle
that we defined not by frankly appraising the real enemy before us but
by focusing on the mirror of our own obsessions. And we have finished
- as the escalating numbers of terrorist attacks, the grinding Iraq
insurgency, the overstretched American military and the increasing
political dissatisfaction at home show -- by fighting precisely the
kind of war they wanted us to fight.

II. Facing what is beyond imagination, you find sense in the familiar.
Standing before Congress on Sept. 20, 2001, George W. Bush told
Americans why they had been attacked. "They hate our freedoms," the
president declared. "Our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and
assemble and disagree with each other." As for Al Qaeda's
fundamentalist religious mission: "We are not deceived by their
pretenses to piety. We have seen their kind before. They are the heirs
of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing
human life to serve their radical visions -- by abandoning every value
except the will to power -- they follow in the path of fascism, and
Nazism, and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the
way, to where it ends: in history's unmarked grave of discarded lies."

Stirring words, and effective, for they domesticated the unthinkable
in the categories of the accustomed. The terrorists are only the
latest in a long line of "evildoers." Like the Nazis and the
Communists before them, they are Americans' evil twins: tyrants to our
free men, totalitarians to our democrats. The world, after a confusing
decade, had once again split in two. However disorienting the horror
of the attacks, the "war on terror" was simply a reprise of the cold
war. As Harry S. Truman christened the cold war by explaining to
Americans how, "at the present moment in world history, nearly every
nation must choose between alternative ways of life," George W. Bush
declared his global war on terror by insisting that "every nation, in
every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or
you are with the terrorists." The echo, as much administration
rhetoric since has shown, was not coincidental. Terrorists, like
Communists, despised America not because of what our country did but
because of who we are. Hating "our values" and "our freedoms," the
evildoers were depicted as deeply irrational and committed to a
nihilistic philosophy of obliteration, reawakening for Americans the
sleeping image of the mushroom cloud. "This is not aimed at our
policies," Henry Kissinger intoned. "This is aimed at our existence."

Such rhetoric not only fell easily on American ears. It provided a
familiar context for a disoriented national-security bureaucracy that
had been created to fight the cold war and was left, at its ending,
without clear purpose. "Washington policy and defense cultures still
seek out cold-war models," as members of the Defense Science Board, a
Defense Department task force commissioned to examine the war on
terror, observed in a report last year. "With the surprise
announcement of a new struggle, the U.S. government reflexively
inclined toward cold-war-style responses to the new threat, without a
thought or a care as to whether these were the best responses to a
very different strategic situation."

Al Qaeda was not the Nazis or the Soviet Communists. Al Qaeda
controlled no state, fielded no regular army. It was a small,
conspiratorial organization, dedicated to achieving its aims through
guerrilla tactics, notably a kind of spectacular terrorism carried to
a level of apocalyptic brutality the world had not before seen. Mass
killing was the necessary but not the primary aim, for the point of
such terror was to mobilize recruits for a political cause -- to move
sympathizers to act -- and to tempt the enemy into reacting in such a
way as to make that mobilization easier. And however extreme and
repugnant Al Qaeda's methods, its revolutionary goals were by no means
unusual within Islamist opposition groups throughout the Muslim world.
"If there is one overarching goal they share," wrote the authors of
the Defense Science Board report, "it is the overthrow of what
Islamists call the 'apostate' regimes: the tyrannies of Egypt, Saudi
Arabia, Pakistan, Jordan and the gulf states....The United States
finds itself in the strategically awkward -- and potentially dangerous
- situation of being the longstanding prop and alliance partner of
these authoritarian regimes. Without the U.S., these regimes could not
survive. Thus the U.S. has strongly taken sides in a desperate
struggle that is both broadly cast for all Muslims and country-

The broad aim of the many-stranded Salafi movement, which includes the
Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia and of
which Al Qaeda is one extreme version, is to return Muslims to the
ancient ways of pure Islam -- of Islam as it was practiced by the
Prophet Muhammad and his early followers in the seventh century.
Standing between the more radical Salafi groups and their goal of a
conservative Islamic revolution are the "apostate regimes," the
"idolators" now ruling in Riyadh, Cairo, Amman, Islamabad and other
Muslim capitals. All these authoritarian regimes oppress their people:
on this point Al Qaeda and those in the Bush administration who
promote "democratization in the Arab world" agree. Many of the
Salafists, however, see behind the "near enemies" ruling over them a
"far enemy" in Washington, a superpower without whose financial and
military support the Mubarak regime, the Saudi royal family and the
other conservative autocracies of the Arab world would fall before
their attacks. When the United States sent hundreds of thousands of
American troops to Saudi Arabia after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait,
Al Qaeda seized on the perfect issue: the "far enemy" had actually
come and occupied the Land of the Two Holy Places and done so at the
shameful invitation of the "near enemy" -- the corrupt Saudi dynasty.
As bin Laden observed of the Saudis in his 1996 "Declaration of
Jihad": "This situation is a curse put on them by Allah for not
objecting to the oppressive and illegitimate behavior and measures of
the ruling regime: ignoring the divine Shariah law; depriving people
of their legitimate rights; allowing the Americans to occupy the Land
of the Two Holy Places."

But how to "re-establish the greatness of this Ummah" -- the Muslim
people -- "and to liberate its occupied sanctities"? On this bin Laden
is practical and frank: because of "the imbalance of power between our
armed forces and the enemy forces, a suitable means of fighting must
be adopted, i.e., using fast-moving light forces that work under
complete secrecy. In other words, to initiate a guerrilla warfare."
Such warfare, depending on increasingly spectacular acts of terrorism,
would be used to "prepare and instigate the Ummah...against the
enemy." The notion of "instigation," indeed, is critical, for the
purpose of terror is not to destroy your enemy directly but rather to
spur on your sleeping allies to enlightenment, to courage and to
action. It is a kind of horrible advertisement, meant to show those
millions of Muslims who sympathize with Al Qaeda's view of American
policy that something can be done to change it.

III. Fundamentalist Islamic thought took aim at America's policies,
not at its existence. Americans tend to be little interested in these
policies or their history and thus see the various Middle East
cataclysms of the last decades as sudden, unrelated explosions
lighting up a murky and threatening landscape, reinforcing the sense
that the 9/11 attacks were not only deadly and appalling but also
irrational, incomprehensible: that they embodied pure evil. The
central strand of American policy -- unflinching support for the
conservative Sunni regimes of the Persian Gulf -- extends back 60
years, to a legendary meeting between Franklin D. Roosevelt and King
Saud aboard an American cruiser in the Great Bitter Lake in Egypt. The
American president and the Saudi king agreed there on a simple bond of
interest: the Saudis, rulers over a sparsely populated but
incalculably wealthy land, would see their power guaranteed against
all threats, internal and external. In return, the United States could
count on a stable supply of oil, developed and pumped by American
companies. This policy stood virtually unthreatened for more than
three decades.

The eruption of Iran's Islamic revolution in 1978 dealt a blow to this
compact of interests and cast in relief its central contradictions.
The shah, who owed his throne to a covert C.I.A. intervention that
returned him to power in 1953, had been a key American ally in the
gulf, and the Islamic revolution that swept him from power showed at
work what was to become a familiar dynamic: "friendly" autocrats
ruling over increasingly impatient and angry peoples who evidence
resentment if not outright hostility toward the superpower ally, in
whom they see the ultimate source of their own repression.

Iran's Islamic revolution delivered a body blow to the Middle East
status quo not unlike that landed by the French Revolution on the
European autocratic order two centuries before; it was ideologically
aggressive, inherently expansionist and deeply threatening to its
neighbors -- in this case, to the United States' Sunni allies, many of
whom had substantial Shia minorities, and to Iraq, which, though long
ruled by Sunnis, had a substantial Shia majority. Ayatollah Khomeini's
virulent and persistent calls for Saddam Hussein's overthrow, and the
turmoil that had apparently weakened the Iranian armed forces, tempted
Saddam Hussein to send his army to attack Iran in 1980. American
policy makers looked on this with favor, seeing in the bloody Iran-
Iraq war the force that would blunt the revolutionary threat to
America's allies. Thus President Reagan sent his special envoy Donald
Rumsfeld to Baghdad in 1983 to parlay with Hussein, and thus the
administration supported the dictator with billions of dollars of
agricultural credits, supplied the Iraqis with hundreds of millions of
dollars in advanced weaponry through Egypt and Saudi Arabia and
provided Hussein's army with satellite intelligence that may have been
used to direct chemical weapons against the massed infantry charges of
Iranian suicide brigades.

The Iraqis fought the Iranians to a standstill but not before ripples
from Iran's revolution threatened to overwhelm American allies,
notably the Saudi dynasty, whose rule was challenged by radicals
seizing control of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in November 1979, and the
Egyptian autocracy, whose ruler, Anwar el-Sadat, was assassinated by
Islamists as he presided over a military parade in October 1981. The
Saudis managed to put down the revolt, killing hundreds. The
Egyptians, under Hosni Mubarak, moved with ruthless efficiency to
suppress the Islamists, jailing and torturing thousands, among them
Osama bin Laden's current deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Merciless
repression by both autocracies' effective security services led
thousands to flee abroad.

Many went to Afghanistan, which the Soviet Red Army occupied in 1979
to prop up its own tottering client, then under threat from Islamic
insurgents -- mujahedeen, or "holy warriors," who were being armed by
the United States. "It was July 3, 1979, that President Carter signed
the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet
regime in Kabul," Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's national security
adviser, recalled in 1998. "And that very day, I wrote a note to the
president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was
going to induce a Soviet military intervention." It was a strategy of
provocation, for the gambit had the effect of "drawing the Russians
into the Afghan trap....The day that the Soviets officially crossed
the border, I wrote to President Carter: We now have the opportunity
of giving to the U.S.S.R. its Vietnam War."

If, to the Americans, supporting the Afghan mujahedeen seemed an
excellent way to bleed the Soviet Union, to the Saudis and other
Muslim regimes, supporting a "defensive jihad" to free occupied Muslim
lands was a means to burnish their tarnished Islamic credentials while
exporting a growing and dangerous resource (frustrated, radical young
men) so they would indulge their taste for pious revolution far from
home. Among the thousands of holy warriors making this journey was the
wealthy young Saudi Osama bin Laden, who would set up the Afghan
Services Bureau, a "helping organization" for Arab fighters that
gathered names and contact information in a large database -- or
"qaeda" -- which would eventually lend its name to an entirely new
organization. Though the Afghan operation was wildly successful, as
judged by its American creators -- "What is most important to the
history of the world?" Brzezinski said in 1998, "some stirred-up
Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold
war?" -- it had at least one unexpected result: it created a global
jihad movement, led by veteran fighters who were convinced that they
had defeated one superpower and could defeat another.

The present jihad took shape in the backwash of forgotten wars. After
the Soviet Army withdrew in defeat, the United States lost interest in
Afghanistan, leaving the mujahedeen forces to battle for the ruined
country in an eight-year blood bath from which the Taliban finally
emerged victorious. In the gulf, after eight years of fantastically
bloody combat, Saddam Hussein forced the Iranians to sign a cease-
fire, a "victory" that left his regime heavily armed, bloodied and
bankrupt. To pay for his war, Hussein had borrowed tens of billions of
dollars from the Saudis, Kuwaitis and other neighbors, and he now
demanded that these debts be forgiven -- he had incurred them, as he
saw it, defending the lenders from Khomeini -- and that oil prices be
raised. The Kuwaitis' particularly aggressive refusal to do either led
Hussein, apparently believing that the Americans would accept a fait
accompli, to invade and annex the country.

The Iraqi Army flooding into Kuwait represented, to bin Laden, the
classic opportunity. He rushed to see the Saudi leaders, proposing
that he defend the kingdom with his battle-tested corps of veteran
holy warriors. The Saudis listened patiently to the pious young man -
his father, after all, had been one of the kingdom's richest men --
but did not take him seriously. Within a week, King Fahd had agreed to
the American proposal, carried by Richard Cheney, then the secretary
of defense, to station American soldiers -- "infidel armies" -- in the
Land of the Two Holy Places. This momentous decision led to bin
Laden's final break with the Saudi dynasty.

The American presence, and the fatal decision to leave American forces
stationed in Saudi Arabia as a trip wire or deterrent even after
Hussein had been defeated, provided bin Laden with a critical
propaganda point, for it gave to his worldview, of a Muslim world
under relentless attack, and its central argument, that the "unjust
and renegade ruling regimes" of the Islamic world were in fact
"enslaved by the United States," a concrete and vivid reality. The
"near enemies" and their ruthless security services had proved
resistant to direct assault, and the time had come to confront
directly the one antagonist able to bring together all the jihadists
in a single great battle: the "far enemy" across the sea.

IV. The deaths of nearly 3,000 people, the thousands left behind to
mourn them, the great plume hanging over Lower Manhattan carrying the
stench of the vaporized buildings and their buried dead: mass murder
of the most abominable, cowardly kind appears to be so at the heart of
what happened on this day four years ago that it seems beyond
grotesque to remind ourselves that for the attackers those thousands
of dead were only a means to an end. Not the least disgusting thing
about terrorism is that it makes objects of human beings, makes use of
them, exploits their deaths as a means to accomplish something else:
to send a message, to force a concession, to advertise a cause. Though
such cold instrumentality is not unknown in war -- large-scale bombing
of civilians, "terror bombing," as it used to be known, does much the
same thing -- terrorism's ruthless and intimate randomness seems
especially appalling.

Terror is a way of talking. Those who employed it so unprecedentedly
on 9/11 were seeking not just the large-scale killing of Americans but
to achieve something by means of the large-scale killing of Americans.
Not just large-scale, it should be added: spectacular.

The asymmetric weapons that the 19 terrorists used on 9/11 were not
only the knives and box cutters they brandished or the fuel-laden
airliners they managed to commandeer but, above all, that most
American of technological creations: the television set. On 9/11, the
jihadists used this weapon with great determination and ruthlessness
to attack the most powerful nation in the history of the world at its
point of greatest vulnerability: at the level of spectacle. They did
it by creating an image, to repeat Peter Jennings's words, "beyond our

The goal, first and foremost, was to diminish American prestige -
showing that the superpower could be bloodied, that for all its power,
its defeat was indeed conceivable. All the major attacks preceding
9/11 attributed at least in part to Al Qaeda -- the shooting down of
U.S. Army helicopters in Mogadishu in 1993, the truck-bombing of
American military housing at Khobar in 1996, the car-bombing of the
American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998, the suicide-
bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Aden in 2000 -- were aimed at the same
goal: to destroy the aura of American power. Power, particularly
imperial power, rests not on its use but on its credibility; U.S.
power in the Middle East depends not on ships and missiles but on the
certainty that the United States is invincible and stands behind its
friends. The jihadis used terrorism to create a spectacle that would
remove this certainty. They were by no means the first guerrilla group
to adopt such a strategy. "History and our observation persuaded us,"
recalled Menachem Begin, the future Israeli prime minister who used
terror with great success to drive the British out of Palestine during
the mid-1940's, "that if we could succeed in destroying the
government's prestige in Eretz Israel, the removal of its rule would
follow automatically. Thenceforward, we gave no peace to this weak
spot. Throughout all the years of our uprising, we hit at the British
government's prestige, deliberately, tirelessly, unceasingly." In its
most spectacular act, in July 1946, the Irgun guerrilla forces led by
Begin bombed the King David Hotel, killing 91 people, most of them

The 9/11 attacks were a call to persuade Muslims who might share bin
Laden's broad view of American power to sympathize with, support or
even join the jihad he had declared against the "far enemy." "Those
young men," bin Laden said of the terrorists two months after the
attacks, "said in deeds, in New York and Washington, speeches that
overshadowed all other speeches made everywhere else in the world. The
speeches are understood by both Arabs and non-Arabs -- even by
Chinese....[I]n Holland, at one of the centers, the number of people
who accepted Islam during the days that followed the operations were
more than the people who accepted Islam in the last 11 years." To
this, a sheik in a wheelchair shown in the videotape replies:
"Hundreds of people used to doubt you, and few only would follow you
until this huge event happened. Now hundreds of people are coming out
to join you." Grotesque as it is to say, the spectacle of 9/11 was
meant to serve, among other things, as an enormous recruiting poster.

But recruitment to what? We should return here to the lessons of
Afghanistan, not only the obvious one of the defeat of a powerful
Soviet Army by guerrilla forces but the more subtle one taught by the
Americans, who by clever use of covert aid to the Afghan resistance
tempted the Soviets to invade the country and thereby drew "the
Russians into an Afghan trap." Bin Laden seems to have hoped to set in
motion a similar strategy. According to a text attributed to Saif al-
Adel, a former Egyptian Army colonel now generally identified as bin
Laden's military chief, "the ultimate objective was to prompt" the
United States "to come out of its hole" and take direct military
action in an Islamic country. "What we had wished for actually
happened. It was crowned by the announcement of Bush Jr. of his
crusade against Islam and Muslims everywhere." ("This is a new kind of
evil," the president said five days after the attacks, "and we
understand...this crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a

The 9/11 attacks seem to have been intended at least in part to
provoke an overwhelming American response: most likely an invasion of
Afghanistan, which would lead the United States, like the Soviet Union
before it, into an endless, costly and politically fatal quagmire.
Thus, two days before the attacks, Qaeda agents posing as television
journalists taping an interview murdered Ahmed Shah Massoud, the
charismatic leader of the Northern Alliance, with a bomb concealed in
a video camera -- apparently a pre-emptive strike intended to throw
into confusion the United States' obvious ally in the coming invasion
of Afghanistan.

For the jihadists, luring the Americans into Afghanistan would
accomplish at least two things: by drawing the United States into a
protracted guerrilla war in which the superpower would occupy a Muslim
country and kill Muslim civilians -- with the world media, including
independent Arab networks like Al Jazeera, broadcasting the carnage -
it would leave increasingly isolated those autocratic Muslim regimes
that depended for their survival on American support. And by forcing
the United States to prosecute a long, costly and inconclusive
guerrilla war, it would severely test, and ultimately break, American
will, leading to a collapse of American prestige and an eventual
withdrawal -- first, physically, from Afghanistan and then,
politically, from the "apostate regimes" in Riyadh, Cairo and
elsewhere in the Islamic world.

In his "Declaration of Jihad" in 1996, bin Laden focused on American
political will as the United States' prime vulnerability, the enemy's
"center of gravity" that his guerrilla war must target and destroy.
"The defense secretary of the crusading Americans had said that 'the
explosions at Riyadh and Al-Khobar had taught him one lesson: that is,
not to withdraw when attacked by cowardly terrorists." We say to the
defense secretary, Where was this false courage of yours when the
explosion in Beirut took place in 1983?

"But your most disgraceful case was in Somalia....When tens of your
soldiers were killed in minor battles and one American pilot was
dragged in the streets of Mogadishu, you left the area carrying
disappointment, humiliation, defeat and your dead with you....The
extent of your impotence and weaknesses became very clear."

In Afghanistan, bin Laden would be disappointed. The U.S. military
initially sent in no heavy armor but instead restricted the American
effort to aerial bombardment in support of several hundred Special
Operations soldiers on the ground who helped lead the Northern
Alliance forces in a rapid advance. Kabul and other cities quickly
fell. America was caught in no Afghan quagmire, or at least not in the
sort of protracted, highly televisual bloody mess bin Laden had
envisioned. But bin Laden and his senior leadership, holed up in the
mountain complex of Tora Bora, managed to survive the bombing and
elude the Afghan forces that the Americans commissioned to capture
them. During the next months and years, as the United States and its
allies did great damage to Al Qaeda's operational cadre, arresting or
killing thousands of its veterans, its major leadership symbols
survived intact, and those symbols, and their power to lead and to
inspire, became Al Qaeda's most important asset.

After Tora Bora, the Qaeda fighters who survived regrouped in
neighboring countries. "We began to converge on Iran one after the
other," Saif al-Adel recalled in a recent book by an Egyptian
journalist. "We began to form some groups of fighters to return to
Afghanistan to carry out well-prepared missions there." It is these
men, along with the reconstituted Taliban, that 16,000 American
soldiers are still fighting today.

Not all the fighters would return to Afghanistan. Other targets of
opportunity loomed on the horizon of the possible. "Abu Mus'ab and his
Jordanian and Palestinian comrades opted to go to Iraq," al-Adel
recalled, for, he said, an "examination of the situation indicated
that the Americans would inevitably make a mistake and invade Iraq
sooner or later. Such an invasion would aim at overthrowing the
regime. Therefore, we should play an important role in the
confrontation and resistance."

Abu Mus'ab is Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi -- or A.M.Z. to the American
troops who are pursuing him and his Qaeda in Mesopotamia forces all
over the shattered landscape of occupied Iraq. The United States, as
Al Qaeda had hoped, had indeed come out of its hole.

V. It was strangely beautiful, the aftermath of the explosion in
Baghdad: two enormous fires, bright orange columns of flame rising
perhaps 20 feet into the air, and clearly discernible in the midst of
each a cage of glowing metal: what remained of two four-wheel-drive
vehicles. Before the flames, two bodies lay amid a scattering of glass
and sand; the car bomb had toppled the sandbags piled high to protect
the building, collapsing the facade and crushing a dozen people. It
was Oct. 27, 2003, and I stood before what remained of the Baghdad
office of the International Committee of the Red Cross. In the
distance, I heard a second huge explosion, saw rising the great plume
of oily smoke; within the next 45 minutes, insurgents attacked four
more times, bombing police stations throughout the capital, killing at
least 35. Simultaneity and spectacle: Qaeda trademarks. I was gazing
at Zarqawi's handiwork.

Behind me, the press had gathered, a jostling crowd of aggressive,
mostly young people bristling with lenses short and long, pushing
against the line of young American soldiers, who, assault rifles
leveled, were screaming at them to stay back. The scores of glittering
lenses were a necessary part of the equation, transforming what in
military terms would have been a minor engagement into a major defeat.

"There is no war here," an American colonel told me a couple of days
before in frustration and disgust. "There's no division-on-division
engagements, nothing really resembling a war. Not a real war anyway."

It was not a war the Americans had been trained or equipped to fight.
With fewer than 150,000 troops -- and many fewer combat soldiers --
they were trying to contain a full-blown insurgency in a country the
size of California. The elusive enemy -- an evolving, loose coalition
of a score or so groups, some of them ex-Baathists from Saddam
Hussein's dozen or so security agencies, some former Iraqi military
personnel, some professional Islamic insurgents like Zarqawi, some
foreign volunteers from Saudi Arabia or Kuwait or Syria come to take
the jihad to the Americans -- attacked not with tanks or artillery or
infantry assaults but with roadside bombs and suicide car bombers and
kidnappings. Iraq, bin Laden declared, had become a "golden
opportunity" to start a "third world war" against "the crusader-
Zionist coalition."

Amid the barbed wire and blast walls and bomb debris of post-
occupation Iraq, you could discern a clear strategy behind the
insurgent violence. The insurgents had identified the Americans'
points of vulnerability: their international isolation; their forced
distance, as a foreign occupier, from Iraqis; and their increasing
disorientation as they struggled to keep their footing on the fragile,
shifting, roiling political ground of post-Hussein Iraq. And the
insurgents hit at each of these vulnerabilities, as Begin had urged
his followers to do, "deliberately, tirelessly, unceasingly."

When, during the summer of 2003, the Bush administration seemed to be
reaching out to the United Nations for political help in Iraq,
insurgents struck at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, killing the
talented envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and 21 others and driving the
United Nations from the country. When the Americans seemed to be
trying to attract Arab forces to come to Iraq to help, the insurgents
struck at the Jordanian Embassy, killing 17. When the Turks offered to
send troops, the insurgents bombed the Turkish Embassy. When
nongovernmental organizations seemed the only outsiders still working
to ease the situation in Iraq, insurgents struck at the Red Cross,
driving it and most other nongovernmental organizations from the

Insurgents in Iraq and jihadists abroad struck America's remaining
allies. First they hit the Italians, car-bombing their base in
Nasiriyah in November 2003, killing 28. Then they struck the Spanish,
bombing commuter trains in Madrid on March 11, 2004, killing 191.
Finally they struck the British, bombing three London Underground
trains and a double-decker bus this July, killing 56. It is as if the
insurgents, with cold and patient precision, were severing one by one
the fragile lines that connected the American effort in Iraq to the
rest of the world.

With car bombs and assassinations and commando attacks, insurgents
have methodically set out to kill any Iraqi who might think of
cooperating with the Americans, widening the crevasse between
occupiers and occupied. They have struck at water lines and
electricity substations and oil pipelines, interrupting the services
that Iraqis depended on, particularly during the unbearably hot
summers, keeping electrical service in Baghdad far below what it was
under Saddam Hussein -- often only a few hours a day this summer --
and oil exports 300,000 barrels a day below their prewar peak (helping
to double world oil prices). Building on the chaotic unbridled looting
of the first weeks of American rule, the insurgents have worked to
destroy any notion of security and to make clear that the landscape of
apocalyptic destruction that is Baghdad, with its omnipresent concrete
blast walls and rolls of concertina wire and explosions and gunshots,
should be laid at the feet of the American occupier, that unseen
foreign power that purports to rule the country from behind concrete
blast walls in the so-called Green Zone but dares to venture out only
in tanks and armored cars.

"With...officials attempting to administrate from behind masses of
barbed wire, in heavily defended buildings, in pathetic
seclusion in 'security zones," one cannot escape the conclusion that
the a hunted organization with little hope of ever
being able to cope with conditions in this country as they exist
today." However vividly these words fit contemporary Baghdad, they are
in fact drawn from the report of the American consul general in
Jerusalem in 1947, describing what Begin's guerrilla forces achieved
in their war against the British. "The very existence of an
underground," as Begin remarked in his memoirs, "must, in the end,
undermine the prestige of a colonial regime that lives by the legend
of its omnipotence. Every attack which it fails to prevent is a blow
to its standing."

In Iraq, the insurgents have presided over a catastrophic collapse in
confidence in the Americans and a concomitant fall in their power. It
is difficult to think of a place in which terror has been deployed on
such a scale: there have been suicide truck bombs, suicide tanker
bombs, suicide police cars, suicide bombers on foot, suicide bombers
posing as police officers, suicide bombers posing as soldiers, even
suicide bombers on bicycles. While the American death toll climbs
steadily toward 2,000, the number of Iraqi dead probably stands at 10
times that and perhaps many more; no one knows. Conservative
unofficial counts put the number of Iraqi dead in the war at somewhere
between 25,000 and 30,000, in a country a tenth the size of the United

Civil wars, of course, are especially bloody, and a civil war is now
being fought in Iraq. The country is slowly splitting apart along the
lines where French and British negotiators stitched it together early
in the last century out of three Ottoman provinces -- Mosul, Baghdad
and Basra -- and it is doing so with the enthusiastic help of the
Islamists, who are doing all they can to provoke a Shia-Sunni
regionwide war.

The Kurds in the north, possessed of their own army and legislature,
want to secure what they believe are their historic rights to the
disputed city of Kirkuk, including its oil fields, and be quit of
Iraq. The Shia in the south, now largely ruled by Islamic party
militias trained by the Iranians and coming under the increasingly
strict sway of the clerics on social matters, are evolving their oil-
rich mini-state into a paler version of the Islamic republic next
door. And in the center, the Baathist elite of Saddam Hussein's
security services and army -- tens of thousands of well-armed
professional intelligence operatives and soldiers -- have formed an
alliance of convenience with Sunni Islamists, domestic and foreign, in
order to assert their rights in a unitary Iraq. They are in effective
control of many cities and towns, and they have the burdensome and
humiliating presence of the foreign occupier to thank for the
continuing success of their recruitment efforts. In a letter to bin
Laden that was intercepted by American forces in January 2004, Zarqawi
asked: "When the Americans disappear...what will become of our

As Zarqawi described in his letter and in subsequent broadcasts, his
strategy in Iraq is to strike at the Shia -- and thereby provoke a
civil war. "A nation of heretics," the Shia "are the key element of
change," he wrote. "If we manage to draw them onto the terrain of
partisan war, it will be possible to tear the Sunnis away from their
heedlessness, for they will feel the weight of the imminence of
danger." Again a strategy of provocation -- which plays on an
underlying reality: that Iraq sits on the critical sectarian fault
line of the Middle East and that a conflict there gains powerful
momentum from the involvement of neighboring states, with Iran
strongly supporting the Shia and with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan and
Syria strongly sympathetic to the Sunnis. More and more, you can
discern this outline in the chaos of the current war, with the
Iranian-trained militias of the Shia Islamist parties that now control
the Iraqi government battling Sunni Islamists, both Iraqi and foreign-
born, and former Baathists.

In the midst of it all, increasingly irrelevant, are the Americans,
who have the fanciest weapons but have never had sufficient troops, or
political will, to assert effective control over the country. If
political authority comes from achieving a monopoly on legitimate
violence, then the Americans, from those early days when they sat in
their tanks and watched over the wholesale looting of public
institutions, never did achieve political authority in Iraq. They
fussed over liberalizing the economy and writing constitutions and
achieving democracy in the Middle East when in fact there was really
only one question in Iraq, emerging again and again in each successive
political struggle, most recently in the disastrously managed writing
of the constitution: how to shape a new political dispensation in
which the age-old majority Shia can take control from the minority
Sunni and do it in a way that minimized violence and insecurity -- do
it in a way, that is, that the Sunnis would be willing to accept,
however reluctantly, without resorting to armed resistance. This might
have been accomplished with hundreds of thousands of troops, iron
control and a clear sense of purpose. The Americans had none of these.
Instead they relied first on a policy of faith and then on one of
improvisation, driven in part by the advice of Iraqi exile "friends"
who used the Americans for their own purposes. Some of the most
strikingly ideological decisions, like abruptly firing and humiliating
the entire Iraqi Army and purging from their jobs many hundreds of
thousands of Baath Party members, seemed designed to alienate and
antagonize a Sunni population already terrified of its security in the
new Iraq. "You Americans," one Sunni businessman said to me in Baghdad
last February, shaking his head in wonder, "you have created your own
enemies here."

The United States never used what authority it had to do more than
pretend to control the gathering chaos, never managed to look clearly
at the country and confront Iraq's underlying political dysfunction,
of which the tyranny of Saddam Hussein was the product, not the cause.
"The illusionists," Ambassador John Negroponte's people called their
predecessors, the officials of the Coalition Provisional Authority
under L. Paul Bremer III. Now, day by day, the illusion is slipping
away, and with it what authority the Americans had in Iraq. What is
coming to take its place looks increasingly like a failed state.

VI. It is an oft-heard witticism in Washington that the Iraq war is
over and that the Iranians won. And yet the irony seems misplaced. A
truly democratic Iraq was always likely to be an Iraq led not only by
Shia, who are the majority of Iraqis, but by those Shia parties that
are the largest and best organized -- the Supreme Council for the
Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Dawa Islamic Party -- which happen
to be those blessed by the religious authorities and nurtured in Iran.
Nor would it be a surprise if a democratic Saudi Arabia turned out to
be a fundamentalist Saudi Arabia and one much less friendly to the
United States. Osama bin Laden knows this, and so do American
officials. This is why the United States is "friendly" with "apostate
regimes." Democratic outcomes do not always ensure friendly
governments. Often the contrary is true. On this simple fact depends
much of the history of American policy not only in the Middle East but
also in Latin America and other parts of the world throughout the cold
war. Bush administration officials, for all their ideological fervor,
did the country no favor by ignoring it.

In launching his new cold war, George W. Bush chose a peculiarly
ideological version of cold-war history. He opted not for containment,
the cautious, status quo grand strategy usually attributed to the late
George F. Kennan, but for rollback. Containment, by which the United
States determinedly resisted Soviet attempts to expand its influence,
would have meant a patient, methodical search for terrorists,
discriminating between those groups that threaten the United States
and those that do not, pursuing the former with determined, practical
policies that would have drawn much from the military and law-
enforcement cooperation of our allies and that would have included an
effective program of nonproliferation to keep weapons of mass
destruction out of terrorist hands. Rollback, on the other hand, meant
something quite different; those advocating it during the 1950's
considered containment immoral, for it recognized the status quo:
Communist hegemony in Eastern Europe and parts of Asia. They wanted
instead to destroy Communism entirely by "rolling back" Communists
from territory they had gained, as Gen. Douglas MacArthur did briefly
and, it turned out, catastrophically, in North Korea, and as President
Eisenhower refused to do when he declined to support the Hungarian
revolutionaries against the Soviet invasion in 1956.

The original advocates of rollback lost that struggle. In this new
cold war, the rollback advocates triumphed and adopted as the heart of
their policy a high-stakes, metaphysical gamble to "democratize the
Middle East" and thus put an end, once and for all, to terrorism. They
relied on a "domino theory" in which the successful implantation of
democracy in Iraq would lead to a "democratic revolution" across the
region. The ambition of this idea is breathtaking; it depends on a
conception of American power as virtually limitless and on an entirely
fanciful vision of Iraqi politics, a kind of dogged political wish-
fulfillment that no sober analysis could penetrate. Replacing any real
willingness to consider whether a clear course existed between here
and there, between an invasion and occupation of Iraq and a democratic
Middle East, was, at bottom, the simple conviction that since the
United States enjoyed a "preponderance of power" unseen in the world
since the Roman Empire, and since its cause of democratic revolution
was so incontrovertibly just, defeat was inconceivable. One detects
here an echo of Vietnam: the inability to imagine that the all-
powerful United States might lose.

American power, however, is not limitless. Armies can destroy and
occupy, but it takes much more to build a lasting order, especially on
the shifting sands of a violent political struggle: another Vietnam
echo. Learning the lesson this time around may prove more costly, for
dominoes can fall both ways. "Political engineering on this scale
could easily go awry," Stephen D. Biddle, a U.S. Army War College
analyst, wrote this past April in a shrewd analysis. "If a democratic
Iraq can catalyze reform elsewhere, so a failed Iraq could presumably
export chaos to its neighbors. A regionwide Lebanon might well prove
beyond our capacity to police, regardless of effort expended. And if
so, then we will have replaced a region of police states with a region
of warlords and chronic instability. This could easily prove to be an
easier operating environment for terrorism than the police states it

The sun is setting on American dreams in Iraq; what remains now to be
worked out are the modalities of withdrawal, which depend on the
powers of forbearance in the American body politic. But the dynamic
has already been set in place. The United States is running out of
troops. By the spring of 2006, nearly every active-duty combat unit is
likely to have been deployed twice. The National Guard and Reserves,
meanwhile, make up an unprecedented 40 percent of the force, and the
Guard is in the "stage of meltdown," as Gen. Barry McCaffrey, retired,
recently told Congress. Within 24 months, "the wheels are coming off."
For all the apocalyptic importance President Bush and his
administration ascribed to the Iraq war, they made virtually no move
to expand the military, no decision to restore the draft. In the end,
the president judged his tax cuts more important than his vision of a
"democratic Middle East." The administration's relentless political
style, integral to both its strength and its weakness, left it wholly
unable to change course and to add more troops when they might have
made a difference. That moment is long past; the widespread
unpopularity of the occupation in Iraq and in the Islamic world is now
critical to insurgent recruitment and makes it possible for a growing
insurgent force numbering in the tens of thousands to conceal itself
within the broader population.

Sold a war made urgent by the imminent threat of weapons of mass
destruction in the hands of a dangerous dictator, Americans now see
their sons and daughters fighting and dying in a war whose rationale
has been lost even as its ending has receded into the indefinite
future. A war promised to bring forth the Iraqi people bearing flowers
and sweets in exchange for the beneficent gift of democracy has
brought instead a kind of relentless terror that seems inexplicable
and unending. A war that had a clear purpose and a certain end has now
lost its reason and its finish. Americans find themselves fighting and
dying in a kind of existential desert of the present. For Americans,
the war has lost its narrative.

Of the many reasons that American leaders chose to invade and occupy
Iraq -- to democratize the Middle East; to remove an unpredictable
dictator from a region vital to America's oil supply; to remove a
threat from Israel, America's ally; to restore the prestige sullied on
9/11 with a tank-led procession of triumph down the avenues of a
conquered capital; to seize the chance to overthrow a regime capable
of building an arsenal of chemical and biological weapons -- of all of
these, it is remarkable that the Bush administration chose to persuade
Americans and the world by offering the one reason that could be
proved to be false. The failure to find the weapons of mass
destruction, and the collapse of the rationale for the war, left
terribly exposed precisely what bin Laden had targeted as the critical
American vulnerability: the will to fight.

How that collapse, reflected in poll numbers, will be translated into
policy is a more complicated question. One of 9/11's more obvious
consequences was to restore to the Republicans the advantage in
national security they surrendered with the cold war's end; their
ruthless exploitation of this advantage and the Democrats'
compromising embrace of the Iraq war has in effect left the country,
on this issue, without an opposition party. Republicans, who fear to
face the voters shackled to a leader whose approval ratings have slid
into the low 40's, are the ones demanding answers on the war. The
falling poll numbers, the approaching midterm elections and the
desperate manpower straits of the military have set in motion a
dynamic that could see gradual American withdrawals beginning in 2006,
as Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the commander in Iraq, acknowledged
publicly in July. Unless Iraq's political process, which has turned
another downward spiral with Sunni negotiators' rejection of the
constitution, can somehow be retrieved, American power in Iraq will go
on deteriorating.

Two and a half years into the invasion, for U.S. policy in Iraq, the
time of "the illusionists" has finally passed. Since the January
elections, which Sunnis largely boycotted, American officials have
worked hard to persuade Sunni leaders to take part in the
constitutional referendum and elections, hoping thereby to isolate the
Baathist and Islamist extremists and drain strength from the
insurgency. This effort comes very late, however, when Iraqi politics,
and the forces pulling the country apart, have taken on a momentum
that waning American power no longer seems able to stop. Even as the
constitutional drama came to a climax last month, the president
telephoned Abdul Aziz Hakim, the Shia cleric who leads the Sciri
Party, appealing for concessions that might have tempted the Sunnis to
agree to the draft; the Shia politician, faced with the American
president's personal plea, did not hesitate to turn him down flat.
Perhaps the best hope now for a gradual American withdrawal that would
not worsen the war is to negotiate a regional solution, which might
seek an end to Sunni infiltration from U.S. allies in exchange for
Shia guarantees of the Sunni position in Iraq and a phased American

For all the newfound realism in the second-term administration's
foreign policy, in which we have seen a willingness finally to
negotiate seriously with North Korea and Iran, the president seems
nowhere close to considering such an idea in Iraq, insisting that
there the choice is simple: the United States can either "stay the
course" or "cut and run." "An immediate withdrawal of our troops in
Iraq, or the broader Middle East, as some have called for," the
president declared last month, "would only embolden the terrorists and
create a staging ground to launch more attacks against America and
free nations." These words, familiar and tired, offering no solution
beyond staying a course that seems to be leading nowhere, have ceased
to move Americans weary of the rhetoric of terror. That does not mean,
however, that they may not be entirely true.

VII. We cannot know what future Osama bin Laden imagined when he sent
off his 19 suicide terrorists on their mission four years ago. He got
much wrong; the U.S. military, light years ahead of the Red Army,
would send no tank divisions to Afghanistan, and there has been no
uprising in the Islamic world. One suspects, though, that if bin Laden
had been told on that day that in a mere 48 months he would behold a
world in which the United States, "the idol of the age," was bogged
down in an endless guerrilla war fighting in a major Muslim country; a
world in which its all-powerful army, with few allies and little
sympathy, found itself overstretched and exhausted; in which its
dispirited people were starting to demand from their increasingly
unpopular leader a withdrawal without victory -- one suspects that
such a prophecy would have pleased him. He had struck at the American
will, and his strategy, which relied in effect on the persistent
reluctance of American leaders to speak frankly to their people about
the costs and burdens of war and to expend the political capital that
such frank talk would require, had proved largely correct.

He has suffered damage as well. Many of his closest collaborators have
been killed or captured, his training camps destroyed, his sanctuary
occupied. "What Al Qaeda has lost," a senior Defense Department
official said five months after the attacks, "again, it's lost its
center of gravity....The benefits of Afghanistan cannot be
overestimated. Again, it was the one state sponsor they had." This
analysis seems now a vision of the past. Al Qaeda was always a
flexible, ghostly organization, a complex worldwide network made up of
shifting alliances and marriages of convenience with other shadowy
groups. Now Al Qaeda's "center of gravity," such as it is, has gone

In December 2003, a remarkable document, "Jihadi Iraq: Hopes and
Dangers," appeared on the Internet, setting out a fascinating vision
of how to isolate the United States and pick off its allies one by
one. The truly ripe fruit, concludes the author, is Spain: "In order
to force the Spanish government to withdraw from Iraq the resistance
should deal painful blows to its forces...[and] make utmost use of the
upcoming general election....We think that the Spanish government
could not tolerate more than two, maximum three blows, after which it
will have to withdraw...."

Three months later, on March 11, 2004 -- 3/11, as it has come to be
known -- a cell of North African terrorists struck at the Atocha Train
Station in Madrid. One hundred ninety-one people died -- a horrific
toll but nowhere near what it could have been had all of the bombs
actually detonated, simultaneously, and in the station itself. Had the
terrorists succeeded in bringing the roof of the station down, the
casualties could have surpassed those of 9/11.

In the event, they were quite sufficient to lead to the defeat of the
Spanish government and the decision of its successor to withdraw its
troops from Iraq. What seems most notable about the Madrid attack,
however -- and the attack on Jewish and foreign sites in Casablanca on
May 17, 2003, among others -- is that the perpetrators were "home-
grown" and not, strictly speaking, Al Qaeda. "After 2001, when the
U.S. destroyed the camps and housing and turned off the funding, bin
Laden was left with little control," Marc Sageman, a psychiatrist and
former C.I.A. case officer who has studied the structure of the
network, has written. "The movement has now degenerated into something
like the Internet. Spontaneous groups of friends, as in Madrid and
Casablanca, who have few links to any central leadership, are
generating sometimes very dangerous terrorist operations,
notwithstanding their frequent errors and poor training."

Under this view, Al Qaeda, in the form we knew it, has been subsumed
into the broader, more diffuse political world of radical Salafi
politics. "The network is now self-organized from the bottom up and is
very decentralized," Sageman wrote. "With local initiative and
flexibility, it's very robust."

We have entered the era of the amateurs. Those who attacked the London
Underground -- whether or not they had any contact with Al Qaeda -
manufactured their crude bombs from common chemicals (including
hydrogen peroxide, bleach and drain cleaner), making them in plastic
food containers, toting them to Luton Station in coolers and
detonating them with cellphone alarms. One click on the Internet and
you can pull up a Web site offering a recipe -- or, for that matter,
one showing you how to make a suicide vest from commonly found items,
including a video download demonstrating how to use the device: "There
is a possibility that the two seats on his right and his left might
not be hit with the shrapnel," the unseen narrator tells the viewer.
Not to worry, however: "The explosion will surely kill the passengers
in those seats."

During the four years since the attacks of 9/11, while terrorism
worldwide has flourished, we have seen no second attack on the United
States. This may be owed to the damage done Al Qaeda. Or perhaps
planning and preparation for such an attack is going on now. When it
comes to the United States itself, the terrorists have their own
"second-novel problem" -- how do you top the first production? More
likely, though, the next attack, when it comes, will originate not in
the minds of veteran Qaeda planners but from this new wave of
amateurs: viral Al Qaeda, political sympathizers who nourish
themselves on Salafi rhetoric and bin Laden speeches and draw what
training they require from their computer screens. Very little
investment and preparation can bring huge rewards. The possibilities
are endless, and terrifyingly simple: rucksacks containing crude
homemade bombs placed in McDonald's -- one, say, in Times Square and
one on Wilshire Boulevard, 3,000 miles away, exploded simultaneously
by cellphone. The effort is small, the potential impact overwhelming.

Attacks staged by amateurs with little or no connection to terrorist
networks, and thus no visible trail to follow, are nearly impossible
to prevent, even for the United States, with all of its power. Indeed,
perhaps what is most astonishing about these hard four years is that
we have managed to show the world the limits of our power. In
launching a war on Iraq that we have been unable to win, we have done
the one thing a leader is supposed never to do: issue a command that
is not followed. A withdrawal from Iraq, rapid or slow, with the
Islamists still holding the field, will signal, as bin Laden
anticipated, a failure of American will. Those who will view such a
withdrawal as the critical first step in a broader retreat from the
Middle East will surely be encouraged to go on the attack. That is,
after all, what you do when your enemy retreats. In this new world,
where what is necessary to go on the attack is not armies or training
or even technology but desire and political will, we have ensured, by
the way we have fought this forever war, that it is precisely these
qualities our enemies have in large and growing supply.

Mark Danner is a professor of journalism and politics at the
University of California at Berkeley and Bard College and the author,
most recently, of "Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib and the War
on Terror."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company