INTRO: One of the looming questions ahead of the tenth anniversary of the 911 attacks is just how close the US is to defeating the group that planned them.
Bin Laden knew the US would retaliate after 911.
So even before the attack, he began dispersing al-Qaeda.
He sent fighters home from training camps in Afghanistan.
He nurtured supporters in Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.
And he set in motion a series of steps that would turn al-Qaeda into a fundamentally different group from the one he started.
NPR’s Dina Temple-Raston explains why it might be too early to declare victory.
TEMPLE-RASTON: If you ask terrorism experts for the one person in the US who has been tracking al-Qaeda longer than anyone else…
They invariably mention someone you’ve probably never heard of…
A small spectacled woman named Barbara Sude…
TEMPLE-RASTON: Barbara Sude was tracking al-Qaeda for the agency for decades… long before the group became the brightest dot on the US radar screen.
So she’s uniquely positioned to say how today’s al-Qaeda is different from the one that attacked the US ten years ago.
And she doesn’t see a defeated organization.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Intelligence officials estimate there are about 4000 al-Qaeda followers around the world…
And they say today’s al-Qaeda is younger, better educated, and more geographically diverse than the group bin Laden created 25 years ago.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which seemed to fade after the US lead surge there, is in the process of trying to make a comeback.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is now the most potentially dangerous branch of the group taking aim at the US.
It already has launched two attacks — the Christmas Day bombing of Northwest Flight 253 and a failed cargo bomb plot last Thanksgiving.
And al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb — intelligence indicates it is helping funnel al-Qaeda recruits to Somalia for training.
All this in spite of the death of Osama bin Laden in May.
TEMPLE-RASTON: That’s Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and professor at Georgetown University.
He says that al-Qaeda is clearly adapting to US drone attacks, assassinations, and recent arrests.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Depending on how you keep count, al-Qaeda now has seven or eight locations — from Yemen to Somalia to Iraq to North Africa — where they can plan, train, and launch operations against the US.
In the run-up to 911 bin Laden had just ONE — Afghanistan.
And the number of groups embracing al-Qaeda ideology also seems to keep growing.
Just in the past month, al-Qaeda has shown up in Nigeria….
Military intelligence officials are watching for signs of al-Qaeda in Libya.
Al-Qaeda’s ability to pop up where officials least expect it hasn’t changed a bit.
And that’s what keeps former CIA analyst Barbara Sude up at night.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Which is exactly what her former colleagues at CIA are looking for in the run-up to 911.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, New York.