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3 years on, al Qaeda still threatens


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The structure of al Qaeda has changed since 9/11, say experts.
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Al Qaeda has morphed from a group to a movement. CNN's Maria Ressa reports.

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(CNN) -- Three years after the September 11 attacks on the United States, terrorism experts and counterterrorism officials say many of al Qaeda's key leaders and operatives have been captured or killed.

The group's chief, Osama bin Laden, and his top deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, remain at large but U.S. officials and their allies say they are still pursuing them in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"It is harder for them to travel across countries," U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said. "It is harder for them to communicate with each other. It is harder for them to raise money. It is harder for them to do everything."

Even so, U.S. intelligence officials tell CNN that al Qaeda's central command is functioning and bin Laden remains involved in planning.

Beyond that though, the group's new structure is unclear.

For example, Pakistani officials are currently searching for Abu Faraj al Liby, who is described as an operational planner. Some say he is among the most senior operatives but others are not so sure.

But counterterrorism officials say the danger has now escalated because al Qaeda has morphed from a group into a movement.

The crackdown by the U.S. and allies such as Pakistan has also forced al Qaeda to rely more heavily on local groups, which have carried out most of this year's attacks.

"As we are in this tactical phase of terrorism, we're quite aware that we're taking down terrorist networks, but that new ones are popping up in their place," said Acting CIA Director John McLaughlin.

Attacks this year have taken place in Iraq and the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan, Yemen and the Horn of Africa, the Pankishi Valley in Georgia, Chechnya and Southeast Asia.

"In place of al Qaeda, there are about 30 different groups that are following, walking in the footsteps of al Qaeda," said Rohan Gunaratna, author of "Inside al Qaeda."

"There is no real distinction between al Qaeda as a group and these other groups."

New tactics

Some counterterrorism officials say one main training base today is Iraq -- dubbed this generation's crucible of terror.

They also believe that al Qaeda and its tentacle groups use Iraq to inflame Muslim anger and win more recruits to replenish its ranks.

Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Najib Tun Razak agrees with this viewpoint. "The best thing that's happened to al Qaeda is for the United States to invade Iraq," he said.

"It means that they will create more unhappiness in the Muslim world ... they would have more alliances as a result of the invasion of Iraq."

There are also new tactics by the terrorists, like the Madrid train bombings shortly before elections this year that brought down a Spanish government strongly allied to Washington.

And there is concern about possible terrorist attacks in the runup to the U.S. presidential election in November. "We continue to worry as you know about this election period," U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has said.

Analysts said the attack in Jakarta this week could also be aimed at influencing national elections in Indonesia as well as Australia.

CNN's Maria Ressa says that in countries like Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population, the demand is for a more balanced approach in the global war on terror.

"Many there want to mix a military response with an understanding of real Muslim grievances ... necessary in a war where local conflicts now have global impact."

CNN Correspondent Maria Ressa in Jakarta and CNN Justice Correspondent Kelli Arena in Washington contributed to this report.


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