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The new Al Qaeda: local franchises

Last week's subway blasts in London resemble recent Al Qaeda attacks.

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A decade ago Al Qaeda was an entrepreneurial jihadist start-up firm. Today it may have evolved into something bigger, and less tightly controlled: a worldwide franchiser of terrorist attacks.

That may be one lesson of last week's London bombings, say some terrorism experts. The British attacks were well-organized, low-tech, and prepared in great secrecy - all hallmarks of the now-decentralized Al Qaeda network. The Madrid subway attacks of 2004 were similar. So were the bombings carried out in Casablanca, Morocco, in 2003.

Having ceded some initiative to local operations, Al Qaeda may now find it more difficult to carry out such spectacular assaults as those of Sept. 11, 2001. But it possibly has evolved into a threat that extends across the globe, capable of striking almost anywhere, at almost any time.

"Al Qaeda is no longer a hierarchical organization, but rather an enabler for myriad terrorist groups and sympathizers to fight the jihadist holy war," says Ivo Daalder, senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution.

Last Thursday's bombings have yet to be definitively linked to Al Qaeda by British investigators. But in Washington, at least, some officials were openly calling them an act of jihad.

Osama bin Laden or other prominent jihadists such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi may not have been the planners of the attacks, said the US Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff in a broadcast interview on Sunday.

But "clearly we're dealing with a group that is sympathetic to Al Qaeda," Mr. Chertoff said on ABC's "This Week."

For now the US terrorism alert level for mass transit will remain at elevated levels. Both Secretary Chertoff and Frances Townsend, President Bush's homeland security adviser, said that they had no warning - through "chatter" at Islamist websites or other intelligence - that attacks were going to occur anywhere last week.

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