Future terrorist attacks in the United States likely will involve suicidal operatives working alone or in groups of "twos and threes" to try to carry out bombings and other relatively simple assaults, according to U.S. analysts who are tracking al-Qaeda's resurgence.
The emerging profile of the next generation of al-Qaeda attacks, senior U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials say, suggests that the group's new plans to hit America probably will not be elaborate, coordinated assaults like those carried out by the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers. Instead, they likely will be similar to last month's bombing of a nightclub in Bali, which killed at least 191 people and was linked to al-Qaeda. (Related story: Al-Qaeda seen as dangerous as before 9/11)
The apparent return to more traditional terrorist assaults reflects al-Qaeda's resiliency and continuing evolution since its leadership was driven from Afghanistan last year by the U.S. military. It also creates new challenges for U.S. authorities who are trying to prevent terrorism here and abroad, senior intelligence and law enforcement officials say.
With its operatives now scattered around the world, al-Qaeda has become a collection of tiny groups of freelancers who often devise their own plots rather than wait for plans from higher-ups, analysts say. That has made al-Qaeda operatives more difficult to track for FBI and CIA agents who continue to expand their domestic and foreign surveillance.
U.S. authorities say they are certain that al-Qaeda remains capable of carrying out a major attack here. "It just won't look the same" as the Sept. 11 attacks, a senior U.S. official says. "We believe they are actively looking at multiple targets. We expect them to come at us in (teams of) ones, twos and threes."
Signs of a revitalized al-Qaeda have fueled a sense of urgency among U.S. officials in the ongoing worldwide terror probe. Among the latest developments:
U.S. agents now are tracking more than 1,000 people in this country who are "persons of interest" because they are suspected of having links to terror groups, law enforcement sources say. Those under surveillance include U.S. citizens, permanent residents and visitors. About 200, mostly permanent U.S. residents, are suspected of having ties to al-Qaeda.
Using a new policy that gives agents more authority to spy on religious groups, the FBI has stepped up surveillance of several U.S. mosques. A senior U.S. official says the recruiting of al-Qaeda sympathizers through radical mosque leaders is stronger than ever.
The FBI now has added more than 500 agents to its domestic counterterrorism effort, the centerpiece of a reorganization that has put more than 3,700 of the bureau's 11,000 agents on terrorism duty. But officials say it will be at least a year before many of the reassigned agents significantly help the terrorism probe. About 75% of them had never worked counterterrorism cases, a senior U.S. official says.
It's still unclear whether Osama bin Laden is alive, but CIA analysts now believe that removing al-Qaeda's leadership won't kill the network. U.S. officials say that many al-Qaeda cells can plan and finance attacks without direction from above. That makes al-Qaeda a tougher target for investigators because information about individual leaders is not as important as it was just after the Sept. 11 attacks.