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The Evolution of Al Qaeda


Yesterday's bombings in London have been said by experts to bear many of the classic signs of an attack by the terrorist organization al-Qaeda. The explosions were simultaneous and well orchestrated. And the target, London's mass transit system, was designed to sow confusion and panic. But experts say the terrorist organization is continually mutating, making it difficult for law enforcement trying to stop attacks. NPR's national security correspondent Jackie Northam reports.


One of the first major attacks by al-Qaeda was in February 1993 on the World Trade Center in New York. A massive bomb went off in the building's garage, leaving six people dead and more than a thousand wounded. Over the course of the next eight years, there were several powerful bombings against military and financial targets. But after the 9/11 attacks, the US military assault on al-Qaeda's network in Afghanistan fundamentally changed the terrorist organization, says Juliette Kayyem, lecturer on national security at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a former member of the National Commission on Terrorism.

Ms. JULIETTE KAYYEM (Kennedy School of Government): December 2001 fundamentally changed the al-Qaeda we once knew. That's when the war in Afghanistan basically proved that we could disrupt al-Qaeda and ensure it didn't have a host country. For some time after that, al-Qaeda was just a disperse group of people who identified with the movement, but it didn't look like it had much structure.

NORTHAM: During that time, the organization fragmented and grew further away from the home base of Afghanistan and al-Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden. Steven Simon is a senior analyst with the Rand Corporation and has written two books on al-Qaeda. He says they are still a relatively small group of people connected to the command group in Afghanistan. But Simon says now there are smaller, far-flung groups united by ideology, but they don't share a common command.

Mr. STEVEN SIMON (Senior Analyst, Rand Corporation): These new, self-selected groups, these self-starters, understand from what the original al-Qaeda did what they have to do and how they need to do it. And there's a burgeoning instructional literature on the Internet that reinforces and elaborates on this message.

NORTHAM: Larry Johnson was a deputy director of the State Department's Counterterrorism Office and a CIA analyst. He says that even if there isn't a strong link to bin Laden or other senior al-Qaeda leaders, there is still a network. Johnson says this became apparent after the train bombings in Madrid just over a year ago, and he says it will likely be the case in the London attack.

Mr. LARRY JOHNSON (Former Deputy Director, State Department's Counterterrorism Office): There's usually one person who has the vision of what they're going to do, who then makes contacts with groups that are in those areas. And we know in London--I mean, I know firsthand in London that there are very active, very dangerous Islamic extremist organizations.

NORTHAM: And because the new al-Qaeda groups are smaller and more insular, it's harder for law enforcement to get a grasp on them, says the Rand Corporation's Simon.

Mr. SIMON: You know, they emerge below the radar screen. These are not people who have lengthy criminal records or have a footprint or signature that law enforcement and intelligence agencies can detect, recognize, locate, surveil, what have you.

NORTHAM: As the face of the organization changes, so too does al-Qaeda's targets. In earlier years, the group focused on military or political targets then veered into financial targets. Harvard's Kayyem says now the group's end game is different.

Ms. KAYYEM: Now, by focusing on transit systems, you lose the symbolism of, say, attacking a Pentagon or a site like that, but what you gain if you're al-Qaeda is massive disruption, which makes everyone feel not safe anymore, and that's exactly what they want.

NORTHAM: And former CIA analyst Johnson points out, the group is still mutating and showing a renewed interest in Osama bin Laden.

Mr. JOHNSON: You now in Iraq have a recruiting ground in which jihadists, people who previously were not willing to go out and embrace the vision of bin Laden and al-Qaeda, are now aligning themselves with elements that have declared allegiance to him. And in the course of that, they're learning how to build bombs. They're learning how to conduct military operations.

NORTHAM: Johnson says the one thing that has not changed for al-Qaeda is its ideology and its hatred of the United States and its allies.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: You'll find a time line of al-Qaeda attacks since 2001 at npr.org.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.