President Bush, Attorney General Ashcroft, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, FBI Director Mueller, CIA Director Tenet. All have said it doesn't matter whether Osama bin Laden is dead or alive; the war against terror confronts a movement, not an individual.
Add to their voices that of Jean-Louis Bruguiere, France's chief anti-terror judge, who was in New York City last week visiting with CBS News. His is a job that has no exact counterpart in the United States. Think a Gallic equivalent of Chief Justice William Rehnquist with elements of all the above; in France the chief anti-terror judge is also an investigator.
Bruguiere said the allied assault on Afghanistan has put al Qaeda's central command out of business. Bin Laden remains an inspiration but is no longer in charge and the world's terror cells are now operating independently. They choose their own targets and provide their own financing, largely through criminal activity. That complicates the war on terror enormously. Al Qaeda, said the judge, "is everywhere and nowhere."
Bruguiere calls it the "globalization of Islamist terror," a diabolical counterpoint to worldwide commerce. Islamist terror cells have struck in Bali, Yemen, Chechnya, Jordan. In the past year attacks have killed at least 388 civilians, including 23 Americans.
To blame all those deaths on a terrorist organization named al Qaeda, said Bruguiere, is to misunderstand the challenge facing the West. Al Qaeda is no longer quantifiable; it is a growing, grass-roots Islamist movement attracting new, young recruits every day.
Which is not to say there aren't targets to hit. With the Afghan training camps now destroyed, Bruguiere said ad hoc groups of Islamists have gathered in the Caucuses, an obscure, largely Muslim region of the former Soviet Union including North Ossetia, Azerbaijan, the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia and the not-so-obscure Republic of Chechnya.
"Chechnya holds the same position in the Islamic world as Afghanistan four years ago," he said.
Bruguiere says training is under way there (though not on the scale of bin Laden's Afghan camps) and the war with Russia is where Islamist true believers go to earn their stripes. There have been reports of chemical and biological warfare experiments in Chechnya by al Qaeda, which Bruguiere would not discuss. And even some suspicion that the deadly agent Ricin, found last week in London, may have originated in Chechnya.
"The West's response to the growing threat in Chechnya," said Bruguiere, "is absolutely not sufficient."
Bruguiere has been fighting terror in France for more than 20 years, and France's fight goes back even further, beginning with the Algerian war of independence in the late 1950s. Bruguiere says France has of necessity become expert in infiltrating émigré communities, enabling it to arrest more than 40 active al Qaeda operatives since 9/11 and to disrupt three or four planned terror attacks.
It is experience and a record the United States can't match.
The U.S., "within the country, is blind," says Bruguiere. He believes al Qaeda operatives remain here, deep undercover. They do not attend a mosque. They drink alcohol and eat pork. They are waiting for an appropriate moment to launch another attack.
And law enforcement officials within the U.S. government agree.
The picture of an enemy that seemed so clear after 9/11 is now a chiaroscuro. Bruguiere said the West is beginning "a new 100 years' war" impossible to win unless the Western democracies present a united front.
By Mark Katkov