When the leading edge of a nation's war effort is a mere manhunt - the dead-or-alive quest for Osama bin Laden - the most important question is obvious: How valuable would one man's removal be in rooting out a multinational network of terror?
The rosiest view is that it would be a triumph of grand strategy; that the loss of bin Laden's financial influence and logistical skill would demoralize and crush his Al Qaeda organization, similar to the way the 1999 capture of guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan has crippled the Kurdish uprising in southeast Turkey.
The more pessimistic - and more prevalent - assessment says the loss of bin Laden would be only a tactical blow, leaving intact not just his network but, in the worst case, a mesh of networks that might have become intertwined with elements of the Iran-sponsored terror organization, Hezbollah, which until Sept. 11 held the dubious distinction of having killed the most Americans of any such group.
"Bin Laden is part of the problem. Bin Laden needs to be taken out," says Milt Bearden, a CIA field officer in Afghanistan and a station chief in Pakistan during Al Qaeda's formative years. "But the American way, the easy way, has been to say that bin Laden is the answer. ... Just making him the metaphor for all this doesn't work anymore. The removal of one man won't solve the problem."
Larry Johnson, managing director for BERG Associates, a Washington security and anti-terrorism consultant, says, "Clearly, there are three or four other guys whose leadership roles are important as well, but [bin Laden] does seem to be the glue that holds the organization together. ... Ocalan, I think, is an appropriate example of what can happen when you take off the head of an organization."
This wide range of opinion is in itself unsettling, indicating just how little is known about the breadth, organization and workings of Al Qaeda or of bin Laden's day-to-day role in its affairs.
The State Department's most recent annual Patterns of Global Terrorism report offers only a fuzzy estimate of Al Qaeda's strength, saying it "may have several hundred to several thousand members," with "cells in a number of countries."
Until recently, bin Laden's operatives abroad were known almost as much for their blunders - trying to collect the deposit on their rental car after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, for example - as for their destructiveness.
"Before this, they'd always sort of been the Keystone Cops of terrorism," Johnson says.
But if Al Qaeda was behind last week's attacks, not only did its operatives succeed in careful planning and devastation, they also defied a long-held belief that terrorists lose much of their suicidal zeal when they're long removed from the fervor of bases and training camps.
"I don't even think Soviet 'sleeper' agents performed as well," Johnson says. "These guys were committed and steady and able to turn it back on when they needed to, despite a steady diet of [American culture]."
As a result, the prevailing tendency might be to overstate bin Laden's capabilities.
"You hear some people saying he's in 50 countries," Johnson says. "Hell, I'm not sure GM is in 50 countries."
Plenty is at stake for the United States in trying to make the correct assessment - military planning, as well as diplomatic maneuvering. But some of the most detailed information available on Al Qaeda is five years old.
It came from former Al Qaeda member Jamal Ahmed Al Fadl, a Sudanese citizen who began cooperating with U.S. authorities in 1996, after becoming disillusioned with Al Qaeda and stealing money from the organization. He was a key witness in this year's trial of four men convicted in May for their roles in the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
The investigation of those bombings also turned up several Al Qaeda "field manuals," offering advice to "brothers" (operatives). The tips ranged from how to most effectively stab someone during an assassination attempt ("1. Anywhere in the rib cage" if attacking from the front) to a list of nine "Security Measures that Should be Observed in Public Transportation" ("6. The brother traveling on a 'special mission' should not get involved in religious issues [advocating good and denouncing evil] or day-to-day matters [seat reservation.]")
Al Fadl's testimony sketched an organizational structure with separate committees to handle military, financial and religious matters. There was even a public relations specialist - Abu Muab, nicknamed "Reuter," who published a daily newsletter.
Al Fadl also detailed his travels and experiences, passing through a variety of guest houses and training camps in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sudan.
Security analysts also speak of perhaps a dozen more training camps in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley that might have become available to Al Qaeda after apparent talks between bin Laden and Imad Mughniyah, security chief for Hezbollah.
Until those talks became known this year - via an FBI plea-bargain agreement with a defendant in the Africa bombing case - authorities had assumed that the two groups were separate, even in opposition, because of religious differences. Hezbollah and its financial sponsors in Iran are aligned with the Shiite branch of Islam, while bin Laden and his Taliban allies in Afghanistan are Sunni Muslims.
While Hezbollah in recent years has become known more for its military commando attacks against the Israeli army in southern Lebanon, it was responsible in past years (with Mughniyah in charge) of planning the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut in 1983, the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon that same year and other celebrated attacks and kidnappings.
"Hezbollah is still very active and very dangerous. They are still the main cat's claw of Iranian influence," says L. Paul Bremer, chairman of the National Commission on Terrorism and the former ambassador-at-large for counter-terrorism during the Reagan administration. The prospect of Mughniyah and bin Laden working together, he says, "is very disturbing, because you're starting then to see a united front between extremist elements."
Al Fadl also testified about close working relationships with other terror groups - Islamic Jihad in Egypt, for example.
He also described helping to open several businesses in Sudan for bin Laden. Some were shell corporations, set up simply as cover for training camps. Others were established to help make money for the organization although analysts say most of Al Qaeda's financial support comes from bin Laden, who inherited as much as $300 million from his family's construction businesses based in Saudi Arabia.
His testimony also illustrated the degree to which bin Laden often depends on cozy relations with "sponsor" states to keep his terror operations under wraps.
Forced out of Sudan
In the early 1990s, bin Laden's base of operations was in Sudan. Al Fadl described a letter from the Sudanese president, Omar Hassan Ahmad al Bashir, which set up a working relationship between the government and Al Qaeda.
He also told of the state intelligence service helping smooth over an incident with local police, after neighbors had complained about an explosion occurring on a "farm" that was also home to an Al Qaeda training camp. The organization's shipments of supplies always breezed past customs officials.
But though Al Fadl described several meetings and conversations with bin Laden, his testimony did not make clear how much control bin Laden exerted over daily affairs or terrorist operations. What bin Laden's experience in Sudan did show was the possible effect of U.S. diplomatic pressure. In 1996, the U.S. government pressured the Sudanese into forcing out bin Laden. He went from there to Afghanistan.
Bearden argues that it might have been better to have left him in Sudan, where, like the renowned terrorist Carlos "The Jackal," bin Laden might have been more easily captured.
In Afghanistan, analysts say, he apparently never stays in one place for too long. It is this aspect of assessing bin Laden that might be most crucial: Where will he be next in the rugged hills of Afghanistan?
This is where cooperation by Pakistan, which probably has the best current intelligence on his movements, could be crucial, according to James Phillips, an analyst with the Heritage Foundation, who warned last year of the need to go after bin Laden's networks and his Taliban supporters.
An Associated Press report yesterday said bin Laden moved to his latest location within minutes of hearing of the completion of last week's attacks. He was last seen in public in February, at his son's wedding in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar.
It is Afghanistan where bin Laden got his start in the late 1980s, as a wealthy but idealistic young Saudi expatriate determined to turn Afghanistan's fight against the invading Soviet Union into a holy war. The effort succeeded, with financial and logistical help from the CIA and the Saudi government, which matched U.S. contributions dollar for dollar.
Most of the fighting, Bearden says, was done by the Afghans. Bin Laden was more of a fund-raiser and do-gooder - building orphanages, for example. But his early role has been embellished in recent years, growing into a legendary portrait of bin Laden as a constant presence in the front lines of battle.
Bearden attributes that partly to the post-Cold War tendency of the United States to personalize its conflicts, whether the enemy is Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega or Slobodan Milosevic. Making bin Laden the top enemy even before last week by implicating him personally in the planning of several previous terrorists attacks, Bearden has argued, has inflated his legend. This, he says, has only made him more influential in the shadowy world of would-be terrorists, perhaps stimulating his recruiting efforts .
"One might argue that the following of Osama bin Laden that's been created by the romantic mythology has become more dangerous than the man himself," Bearden wrote two years ago in The New York Times.
If so, then the benefits of capturing him might be more psychological than tactical. Or maybe not, which again highlights the problem: No one knows for sure.
"I don't think you can quantify [his value to Al Qaeda]," Bremer says. "The impact of removing him will depend on the organization. If you go back to the earlier terror networks of the Middle East, when Abu Nidal was our favorite man to hate, getting him on the move basically destroyed that organization. I think [Al Qaeda] is going to be more difficult, because basically it is a looser network of like-minded people who hate the United States."