Officials say they have detected that supporters of al Qaeda have also begun exploring a post-bin Laden future.
Rather than choose a successor from among bin Laden's sons or surviving lieutenants who are already sought by U.S. agencies, the organization may select from a group of men who have largely stayed underground. U.S. authorities, according to one official, have already identified some of those potential leaders.
Bin Laden himself, these officials believe, is still alive but has essentially lost tactical control of his fast shrinking organization.
One by one the men he counted on to run it have been killed or captured: Mohammed Atef, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. And the arrest of the latest, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, has given the best clues yet about bin Laden's whereabouts, officials said.
Publicly, administration officials continue to insist that al Qaeda is still a capable terrorist force.
"The organization maintains the ability and the intent to inflict significant casualties in the United States with little warning," said FBI head Robert Mueller on Feb. 11, 2003.
And the White House is expected to endorse placing the nation back on Code Orange, the second highest alert level for terrorist attacks, as soon as war with Iraq starts.
But senior officials now feel an optimism that has been carefully shielded from the public. Even if al Qaeda does strike again, which is likely, it will never be with the power it once had.
"These guys have insurmountable problems," said one official, "and are quite literally running for their lives."