By Peter Grier writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
The terror group already had an army of extremist fighters. It had an economy, too, as its leader ran everything from a Middle East construction firm to a sesame farm in the Sudan.
Then in the 1990s, Osama bin Laden decided that Al Qaeda ("The base") needed something more: foreign allies. Federal prosecutors allege that throughout the decade, Al Qaeda leaders worked on a three-way alliance with the Islamic Front of Sudan and elements of the Iranian government.
This terrorist "NATO" may have never really solidified. But the mere fact that Mr. bin Laden planned it shows the breadth of his ambition, say US officials.
In his quest to wage jihad, or holy war, against the United States, bin Laden may have constructed something that is bigger than a guerrilla group and more complex than a multinational corporation. Call it a virtual country - the Republic of Jihadistan.
"It has statelike aspects, but without state borders," says Richard Rosecrance, an expert on terrorism at the University of California at Berkeley.
This does not mean that bin Laden has replaced the Soviet Union - or even Iraq - on the scale of dangers to American national interests. Personifying extremist threats in one individual, as the media and some US officials are prone to do, undoubtedly exaggerates that person's influence and power.
Nor is Al Qaeda's loosely organized, ideologically motivated network unprecedented in Western history. A century ago, a dedicated transnational terrorist group - anarchists - wreaked havoc around the globe, notes Gideon Rose, deputy director of national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Between 1894 and 1901, anarchists assassinated the president of France, the prime minister of Spain, the empress of Austria, the king of Italy, and William McKinley, president of the United States.
"We've all forgotten just how successful they were," says Mr. Rose. "Imagine how worked up we'd be if some group knocked off so many heads of state today."
But bin Laden's network appears to represent the coming thing in the age of modern terrorism. The sponsorship of terror groups by geographical states such as Syria and Libya appears to be on the decline. Their place is being taken by virtual states such as Al Qaeda, which have little physical infrastructure to attack and less in the way of safe harbors against which economic sanctions can be effective.
The head of the US National Security Agency has publicly complained that Al Qaeda's sophisticated use of the Internet and encryption techniques have defied Western eavesdropping attempts. …