The recent arrest of al Qaeda operative Eisa al-Hindi in Britain gives one an idea about how Islamist terrorists prepare for their attacks. Al-Hindi is a convert from Hinduism who had done surveillance of New York targets in 2001 and is suspected of planning additional operations in the UK or US.
Prior to attacks in Casablanca in May and Istanbul in November of 2003, Madrid in March, 2004, and probably in Bali in October, 2002, it appears that a high-ranking associate of Osama bin Laden traveled to the target cities beforehand to provide advice to the local activists who would actually perpetrate the attacks. The visitor was usually based in Pakistan or elsewhere in the Indian subcontinent, or in Saudi Arabia, the two major centers of Islamist terrorism in the world. Al-Hindi is of Indian extraction, a natural choice, since most Muslims in Britain are from the Indian subcontinent.
The general consensus now is that al Qaeda is no longer a tightly structured organization with a well-defined hierarchy. However, al Qaeda, which means "the base" in Arabic, remains active. The usual analogy is with a franchised global company, but this "McDonald's model" is an imperfect comparison.
When the Taliban lost control over most of Afghanistan by the end of 2001, Al Qaeda lost access to its own extensive network of specialized training camps. Since al Qaeda was no longer an alien terrorist organization that largely controlled a government, it reverted to an older pattern -- being a terrorist organization with transnational reach but no fixed base.
In the thirteenth century, St. Bonaventura defined God as a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. That is a good way to describe the al Qaeda of today. On the one hand, bin Laden has lost many of his tactical capabilities. It is one thing to control specialized training camps (some for Western operatives, some for ordinary combatants, etc) but another to be pushed into hidden jungle camps in places such as Indonesia and the Philippines. On the other hand, strategically, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri have made great progress towards their first and most important goal: transforming the virtually dormant concept of jihad from an Islamic religious and political recovery into a serious cultural reality.
In that sense, al Qaeda's dominance is clear, no matter how often President Bush and others assert that al Qaeda does not "represent" Islam. At least in majority Sunni Islam, there is no legitimate, universally recognized authority to define what "orthodox Islam" is. Certainly not Saudi imams, whose Wahhabi interpretation of Islam would have been seen as heresy before oil made them rich and influential; nor al Azhar in Cairo, let alone Kairouan in Tunisia. All would have been seen, correctly, as co-opted, if not bought, by their respective governments.
As the Quran and Hadith make clear, Osama remains a Muslim unless he publicly renounces his faith. If Osama operates within the accepted or implicit bounds of Islam, what should stop any Muslim from accepting or following his (or al Zawahiri's) ideas and tactics? This explains why Al Qaeda has indeed won the first round. It has convinced millions of Muslims everywhere that this is a conflict between Islam and the rest of the world rather than what it really is - a civil war within the Islamic world.
While the list of states Osama considers enemies is large -- the US, Israel, France, the UK, Russia, India and China are all on it -- we also have the normally moderate Council of British Muslims complaining about harassment by the authorities, thus implicitly accepting the Islamic quality of the terrorists arrested. The claim is taken to further, laughable lengths by the British Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights, which, in an Orwellian outburst of absurdity, claimed, "There is mounting evidence that the powers under the Terrorism Act are being used disproportionately against members of the Muslim community in the UK." Did they expect some proportional action against Methodists and Anglicans?
To accept that Islamism is a lasting cultural phenomenon, as well as arguably an immediate terror threat, is to also admit that al Qaeda is everywhere going back to Bonaventura's definition of God. By becoming fundamentally synonymous with Islamism, al Qaeda has established a "presence" in all countries with significant Muslim communities. There are national Islamist terror groups everywhere, from Indonesia and the Philippines to Morocco and the UK. These groups were not invented by someone hiding in the mountains of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. They are the products of a global Islamist revival--one defined by al Qaeda and its way of thinking.
Thus, national Islamist terror organizations and al Qaeda have two things in common: ideological similarity and persistent strategic (not tactical) cooperation. The Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat or the Moroccan Islamist Fighting Group, or the even more dangerous and larger Islamic Group in Southeast Asia, were not founded by al Qaeda, but it ideologically energizes them and gives them technical advice. McDonald's--to push the analogy a bit further--does not allow the use of its name to just any entrepreneur. It imposes standards--and so does al Qaeda. They maintain a degree of quality control to protect the company's logo.
The Al Qaeda visitor therefore has a role. The targeting has to be accepted, if not approved, by the "owners of the logo" in Pakistan, and it has to be done right: hence the use of al Qaeda's technical expertise. Virtually all known al Qaeda-linked operatives are experts in computers and engineering. This means that while al Qaeda is just a base, its role and degree of control over operations everywhere cannot be discounted as far too many countries are wont to do.
For counter-terrorist organizations everywhere, catching the visitor is tantamount to preventing an attack. The visitor is an essential ingredient in any successful terror attack, and is also the proof that al Qaeda is not only a form of Islamic ideology, but also the engine behind the entire problem of Islamist terror. Hence, we are back to basics. We must continue to improve intelligence and border controls, for detecting the "visitor." And we must admit that the problem is not some fringe, pseudo-Islamic minority but a significant proportion of the global Muslim community.