Writing the obituary of al Qaeda has proven premature. Recent attacks in Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Pakistan by al Qaeda and affiliated groups demonstrate that the war on terrorism is far from over. Indeed, there are likely to be more attacks against Western targets in coming weeks. Yet the Bush administration, and by extension the American public, are laboring under two misapprehensions about the conduct of that war.

The first miscalculation is that the war in Iraq was relevant to the war on terrorism. In reality the Iraq war was a sideshow, albeit an expensive one in terms of blood and treasure. Most Americans who saw the stirring television pictures of the statue of Saddam Hussein being toppled in Baghdad breathed a huge sigh of relief believing that the fall of Saddam's regime represented an important watershed in the war on terrorism. And who could blame them? Although Bush administration officials never explicitly claimed that Saddam had anything to do with the September 11 attacks (because the largest criminal investigation in history never turned up such a link), they repeatedly made speeches conflating Saddam's regime with September 11, with the result that a majority of Americans came to believe that there was such a link. In fact, the connection between Saddam and al Qaeda has always been tenuous at best. Iraqi functionaries may have met al Qaeda officials a handful of times in the past decade, but having meetings, as the United Nations continuously reminds us, does not make alliances, or even marriages of convenience. Indeed, al Qaeda has always been an NGO, a non-governmental organization, which was not sponsored by any country. (To the degree that al Qaeda had any official sponsorship it has historically come from Saudi Arabia.) In sum, while the war in Iraq deposed a despicable tyrant, it will have little lasting impact on the war on terrorism except insofar as large numbers of American troops indefinitely occupying Iraq will provide tempting targets for Middle Eastern terrorists for years to come.

The second misapprehension that the Bush administration has about al Qaeda is far more serious as it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the threat we all face. To treat al Qaeda simply as an organization is to miss the fact that al Qaeda has now mutated into an ideology with many adherents who may have never traveled to bin Laden's Afghan training camps. President Bush reportedly keeps a scorecard in his desk of the top twenty or so terrorists, putting an X through each one when they are captured of killed, while other administration officials point to the fact that half of al Qaeda's top leadership is now off the streets. Certainly capturing or killing those key leaders makes all of our lives safer as they are the terrorists with the knowledge and skill to mount devastating anti-Western operations. However, al Qaeda is not like the Gambino crime family where if you eliminate the various capos and lieutenants of the organization it eventually goes out of business. Rather, al Qaeda, the organization, has also evolved into an ideology of "bin Ladenism" or "al Qaedaism." 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 is important, because many thousands of underemployed, disaffected men in the Muslim world will continue to embrace for years to come bin Laden's violent anti-Western doctrine and call for Taliban-style theocracies around the Muslim world.

This has important implications for the war on terrorism. The recent attacks in Saudi Arabia were almost certainly the work of al Qaeda, and were likely sanctioned by bin Laden himself. The subsequent attacks in Morocco were conducted in a less professional manner than the Riyadh attacks and were likely the work of Moroccan groups loosely affiliated with al Qaeda. At more or less the same time there was also a rash of small-scale attacks in Karachi, Pakistan directed at Shell gas stations that were probably the work of al Qaeda sympathizers unaffiliated to the organization. This is likely to be the pattern of terrorist attacks in the future. Al Qaeda, the organization, will continue to carry out well-planned spectacular attacks, while al Qaeda affiliates will implement their own less well-organized operations, and others unknown, freelancing in the name of al Qaeda, will mount their own small-bore attacks. Thus while eliminating the top leadership of al Qaeda will be useful in terms of seeking justice for the victims of September 11 and heading off other spectacular attacks by the group, make no mistake: this will not end the war of the terrorists. Bin Laden's ideas have circulated widely and will continue to attract adherents for years to come. Arresting people is a relatively simple matter. Arresting ideas is another thing entirely. All that one can hope for in the long term is that bin Ladenism will eventually wither way, burdened down by its own internal contradictions, as have other bad ideas in the past.

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  • Peter L. Bergen is the author of "Holy War Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden."
  • More By Peter Bergen