New York and Washington. Bali, Riyadh, Istanbul, Madrid. And now London.
When will it end? Where will it all lead?
The experts aren’t encouraged.
One terrorism researcher sees the prospect of ‘‘endless’’ war. Adds the man who tracked Osama bin Laden for the CIA, ‘‘I don’t think it’s even started yet.’’
An Associated Press survey of students of international terrorism finds them ever more convinced, in the aftermath of London’s terrorist attacks, that the world has entered a long siege in a new kind of war. They believe that al-Qaida is mutating into a global insurgency, a possible prototype for other 21st-century movements, technologically astute, almost leaderless. And the way out is far from clear.
In fact, says Michael Scheuer, the ex-CIA analyst, rather than move toward solutions, the United States took a big step backward by invading Iraq.
Now, he said, ‘‘we’re at the point where jihad is selfsustaining,’’ where Islamic ‘‘holy warriors’’ in Iraq fight America with or without allegiance to al-Qaida’s bin Laden.
The cold statistics of a RAND Corp. database show the impact of the explosion of violence in Iraq: The 5,362 deaths from terrorism worldwide between March 2004 and March 2005 were almost double the total for the same 12-month period before the 2003 U.S. invasion.
Thursday’s attacks on London’s transit system mirrored last year’s bombings of Madrid commuter trains, and both point to an al-Qaida evolving into a movement whose isolated leaders offer video or Internet inspiration — but little more — to local ‘‘jihadists’’ who carry out the strikes.
Experts say the bombings bore hallmarks of al-Qaida.
The movement’s evolution ‘‘has given rise to a ‘virtual network’ that is extremely adaptable,’’ said Jonathan Stevenson, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Washington office.
The movement adapted, for example, by switching from targeting aviation, where security was reinforced after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, to the ‘‘softer’’ targets of mass transit.
Such compartmentalized groupings, in touch electronically but with little central control, ‘‘are going to be a prototype for understanding where terrorist movements are going in the 21st century,’’ said the University of North Carolina’s Cynthia Combs, co-author of a terrorism encyclopedia.
Combs said the so-called Earth and Animal Liberation fronts in the United States are examples — if less lethal ones — of ‘‘leaderless’’ militant movements based on isolated cells. She also said it’s not unrealistic that another American example — far-right ‘‘militia’’ cells — might make common cause someday with foreign terrorists against the U.S. government.
Bruce Hoffman, the veteran RAND Corp. specialist who fears an ‘‘endless war,’’ dismisses talk of al-Qaida’s ‘‘back’’ having been ‘‘broken’’ by the capture of some leaders.
‘‘From the terrorists’ point of view, it seems they have calculated they need to do just one significant terrorist attack a year in another capital, and it regenerates the same fear and anxieties,’’ said Hoffman, who was an adviser to the U.S. occupation in Iraq.
What should be broken, he said, is the cycle of terrorist recruitment through the generations.