The attacks in Madrid Thursday morning suggest that the Al Qaeda network remains very much in business. Despite the fact that two wars have been fought in the name of winning the "war on terrorism" and untold billions of dollars have been spent in an effort to break the back of Al Qaeda, the attacks came as a total surprise, killing more than 200 people.
Any normal organization that had suffered the loss of its base in Afghanistan and that had lost most of its top leaders in the last 2 1/2 years would have gone out of business. But Al Qaeda, which has emerged as the chief suspect in the Madrid bombings, is not a normal organization. Al Qaeda is not like some Mafia family; if you capture or kill all the members of a Mafia family, it will simply cease to exist.
Since Sept. 11, Al Qaeda the group has been morphing into Al Qaeda the ideological movement, and although it is a relatively simple matter to arrest people, it's altogether another thing to arrest the spread of ideas.
The Al Qaeda ideology -- a fervent opposition to Western policy in the Middle East and the desire for the rule of Islamic law across the Muslim world -- has reached a vast global audience as a result of the wide dissemination of Osama bin Laden's multiple statements since the 9/11 attacks. The Internet also has created a multiplier effect for Al Qaeda's ideas.
On websites with names like Al Neda ("the Call" in Arabic), Al Qaeda disseminates its propaganda and even explosives manuals. It is no longer necessary to go to Afghanistan to sit at the feet of Al Qaeda's leaders or to take explosives training at a camp. Signing up for the jihad is a click of a mouse away.
Bin Ladenism will never enjoy the mass appeal of other destructive ideologies of the modern era, such as communism, but it certainly enjoys wider support today than the secular Arab socialism that gripped much of the Middle East in past decades. And this means that we have barely begun the war with Al Qaeda and its affiliated groups because many thousands of underemployed, disaffected Muslims will continue to embrace Bin Laden's doctrine of violent anti-Westernism.
In a telling survey of opinion conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project in the Muslim world in 2003, people in countries as diverse as Morocco, Indonesia, Jordan and Turkey expressed more confidence in Bin Laden than President Bush, by significant margins.
With the attacks in Madrid, Al Qaeda has demonstrated the ability to strike a devastating blow in a European capital and to influence the course of the Spanish election, a result on par with the Sept. 11 attacks in terms of a psychological blow to the West.
The attacks should not have been a surprise. One of the defining hallmarks of Al Qaeda is its patience. Al Qaeda took five years to plan the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed more than 200 people, and it took the group at least three years to plan the Sept. 11 attacks.
Just because Bin Laden's followers had not struck in either the U.S. or Europe since the Sept. 11 attacks did not mean that they had stopped plotting to do so.
Al Qaeda struck in Madrid at the time of its choosing, at a moment when it could cause the largest number of fatalities and create the greatest psychological effect. Moreover, Al Qaeda is operating on a timeline very different than our own. Ayman Zawahiri, Bin Laden's deputy, pointed out in his 2001 autobiography that it took two centuries to eject the Crusaders from the Middle East in the Middle Ages.
Another reason the attacks in Spain should not have been surprising is that the most reliable guide to the Al Qaeda network's actions are the words of its chief ideologue, Bin Laden. Last October, Bin Laden released a widely publicized audiotape calling for attacks on countries supplying coalition forces for the Iraq war, including Britain, Spain and Italy.
Since that statement, a group linked to Al Qaeda attacked an Italian police barracks in southern Iraq, killing 17, and there was an attack on the British Consulate in Istanbul. And now come the multiple attacks in Madrid.
Spain was a natural target for Al Qaeda because of its support for the Iraq war and because it is the only jurisdiction in which Bin Laden has been indicted for his role in the Sept. 11 attacks. And despite the fact that Muslims have not controlled any part of Spain for more than five centuries, one of Al Qaeda's oft-stated aims has been to return Andalusia, in southern Spain, to the orbit of Muslim rule.
Al Qaeda has had other successes since 9/11. In Riyadh, for instance, multiple attacks last year killed dozens. In Pakistan, Gen. Pervez Musharraf narrowly survived two recent assassination attempts.
The attacks in Madrid demonstrate that the Iraq war has energized Al Qaeda and its affiliates. As one senior U.S. intelligence official told me: "If Osama believed in Christmas, he'd want us in Iraq -- that's what he'd want under his Christmas tree."
Copyright 2004, Los Angeles Times