THE US-LED CAMPAIGN against Al Qaeda and its burgeoning global network of affiliates has notched up some major successes over the last two years. A score of leading figures in Osama Bin Laden's jihad have been killed or captured, among them Abu Mussab Al Zarqawi, the head of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, and a dozen of his top aides; Shamil Besayev, the long elusive leader of the Islamist-led Chechen rebels; and a Syrian named Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, a key but mysterious link to the 9/11 suicide hijackers and arguably the most important strategist in the jihadist hierarchy.
These victories have damaged the terrorist networks and left Bin Laden and his inner circle largely isolated in the Islamic tribal belt of north-western Pakistan along the Afghanistan border. But they have by no means eliminated the networks.
Clandestine organisations have always had a way of surviving such setbacks. The Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland, for instance, lost senior cadres at a rate of one or two a week in the early 1970s as British security forces got the measure of the Republican movement, but the Provos endured and became even more deadly and efficient.
The Bush administration claims that 70% of Al Qaeda's hierarchy has been eliminated since 9/11, along with 4,000 foot soldiers and lower-level activists. According to other estimates, 40% of the generation of young hardline Islamic fundamentalists in their 20s and 30s that emerged in the late 1990s to follow Bin Laden have been killed.
But a new generation of mid-level field commanders and organisers has taken their place. These comprise the third generation of jihadists, those who have emerged since 9/11 to follow the veterans, such as Bin Laden, of the 1979-89 war against the Soviet Army in Afghanistan and the conflicts that followed in the Balkans, Chechnya and North Africa.
Over the last two years, Madrid, London, Sharm El Sheikh and other Egyptian resorts, Amman, New Delhi, Mumbai and Jakarta have been hit by suicide bombings that killed around 600 people. Thousands more have been killed or wounded in Iraq's relentless insurgency, particularly by Zarqawi's jihadists. Iraq has become the key battleground for the jihadists, while they are clearly making a comeback in Afghanistan and prepared to fight to the death. Suicide bombings were rare in Afghanistan until 2005, when 21 attacks were carried out. There have been at least 16 so far this year and no sign of a let-up.
Globally, intelligence services say they have thwarted other plots, underlining a much improved and better coordinated security capability, but it also shows how the loose confederation of jihadists is keeping up...