PESHAWAR, Pakistan – When Osama bin Laden resurfaced Friday in a 26-minute videotaped speech, his most important message was one left unsaid: We have survived.
The last time bin Laden showed his face to the world was three years ago, in October 2004. Since then, al-Qaida’s core leadership – dubbed al-Qaida Central by intelligence analysts – has grown stronger, rebuilding the organizational framework badly damaged after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, according to counterterrorism officials in Pakistan, the United States and Europe.
It has accomplished this revival, the officials said in interviews, by drawing on lessons learned during 15 years of failed campaigns to destroy it. In that period, bin Laden and his followers have outfoxed powerful enemies from the Soviet army to the Saudi royal family to the CIA.
Dodging the U.S. military in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, al-Qaida Central reconstituted itself across the Pakistani border, returning to the rugged tribal areas surrounding the organization’s birthplace, the dusty frontier city of Peshawar. In the first few years, Pakistani and U.S. authorities captured many senior leaders; in the past 18 months, no major figure has been killed or caught in Pakistan.
Al-Qaida Central moved quickly to overcome extensive leadership losses by promoting loyalists who had served alongside bin Laden for years. It restarted fundraising, recruiting and training. And it expanded its media arm into perhaps the most effective propaganda machine ever assembled by a terrorist or insurgent network.
Today, al-Qaida operates much the way it did before 2001. The network is governed by a shura, or leadership council, that meets regularly and reports to bin Laden, who continues to approve some major decisions, according to a senior U.S. intelligence official. About 200 people belong to the core group and many receive regular salaries, another senior U.S. intelligence official said.
“They do appear to meet with a frequency that enables them to act as an organization and not just as a loose bunch of guys,” the second official said.
Operatives are organized into cells with separate missions, such as fundraising or logistics, and may know the identities of only a few individuals in their circle to prevent infiltration, Pakistani officials said. Most leaders are based in Pakistan, although many travel to Afghanistan and occasionally farther afield, to Iraq, Turkey, Iran, the Caucasus region and North Africa.
Counterterrorism officials were slow to grasp the resurrection of al-Qaida Central. For years, many U.S. and European intelligence officials characterized it as a spent force, limited to providing inspiration for loosely affiliated regional networks. Bombings in Europe and the Middle East were blamed on homegrown cells of militants, operating independent- ly of bin Laden.
On June 24, 2003, President Bush declared al-Qaida’s leadership largely defunct. At a Camp David summit, Bush praised Pakistan’s Gen. Pervez Musharraf, crediting his country with apprehending more than 500 members of al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Six months later, Musharraf was nearly killed in an assassination attempt by al-Qaida operatives. Shortly afterward, a group of al-Qaida leaders held a summit of their own in the Pakistani region of Waziristan, where they plotted fresh attacks thousands of miles away in Britain, including targets in London and financial institutions in the United States, according to Pakistani officials.
Many U.S., Pakistani and European intelligence officials now agree that al-Qaida’s ability to launch operations around the globe did not diminish after the invasion of Afghanistan as much as previously thought. Further investigation has shown, for example, that al-Qaida’s leadership, with bin Laden’s direct blessing, made the decision to activate sleeper cells in Saudi Arabia in 2003, prompting a wave of car bombings and assassination attempts that the Saudi government has only recently brought under control.
From hideouts in Pakistan, according to court testimony and interviews, bin Laden’s deputies ordered attacks on a Tunisian synagogue in 2002, a British consulate and bank in Istanbul in 2003, and the London transit system in 2005.
“All this business about them being isolated or cut off is whistling past the graveyard,” said Michael Scheuer, a former CIA analyst who led the agency’s unit assigned to track bin Laden. “We’re looking at an organization that is extraordinarily adept at succession planning. They were built to survive, like the Afghans were against the Russians.”