Bin Laden's Influence Spreads Even as Al Qaeda Weakens, Experts Say

Cornered in a cave somewhere in the wilderness where Pakistan and Afghanistan meet, Usama bin Laden (search) and his top generals may be cut off from fighters and money, yet they can still strike with angry words and ideas.

Their ideology -- rooted in generations of Muslim resentment of the West and aired in a series of audio- and videotapes, on Arabic television and over the Internet -- is creating an Al Qaeda (search) legacy of terror that has spread around the world, analysts say.

Al Qaeda "is as much an organization as it is an idea, and that idea is self perpetuating," said Magnus Ranstorp, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (search) at St. Andrews University in Scotland. "What is Al Qaeda? We make it synonymous with its leadership, with bin Laden. But it's more than that."

The latest audiotape attributed to bin Laden aired Saturday on the Arab television station Al-Jazeera (search), featuring a call on young Muslims to fight a holy war against American forces in Iraq and threatening homicide attacks inside and outside of the United States.

Also Saturday, an Al Qaeda-style recording surfaced on the Internet featuring what is described as audio of militants launching a homicide bomb attack in Saudi Arabia in May, killing 26 people in a Western housing compound. A speaker dedicates the attack to bin Laden and the audio includes what appear to be old statements from him calling on Muslims to wage a holy war on the United States and its allies.

In recent years, Islamic militant groups around the world have adopted Al Qaeda's strategy of homicide bombings. Groups that once may have been more interested in toppling the government in Jordan, Indonesia or the Philippines also have adopted Al Qaeda's internationalist view that the enemy is the West in general and the United States in particular. Muslim resentment also is growing over Israel's treatment of Palestinians.

During the Indonesian trial of Imam Samudra, accused mastermind in the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that killed 202 people, mostly foreign tourists, prosecutors introduced testimony from another alleged militant who said the Bali bombings were planned after calls by bin Laden for terror strikes on Americans and other Westerners.

In September, when he was sentenced to death, Samudra shouted, "Go to hell, you infidels!" and threatened President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Dia'a Rashwan, an expert on radical Islam at Egypt's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said the United States may have played into bin Laden's hands by moving into Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein. Bin Laden said the United States wants to control Muslim land, and now U.S. troops are doing that in the heart of the Arab world.

In the minds of some Muslims, "Bin Laden said theoretical things, but now the theoretical things have become reality," Rashwan said.

U.S. military officials say it is unclear to what extent Al Qaeda is organized and on the attack now in Iraq. But L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, has told U.S. lawmakers that Iraq could become a haven for terrorists if the United States fails there.

Benjamin Orbach, a Middle East fellow at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies who has researched Al Qaeda, says that if the United States instead succeeds in transforming Iraq into a vibrant, stable democracy, it would undermine militants who say Washington can do no good in the Muslim world. The effort will take long-term commitment -- appropriately enough, said Orbach, given that Al Qaeda's adherents are "thinking 100 years, not victory in two or three years."

Since Sept. 11, Americans have captured or killed Al Qaeda generals. The network of militant Muslims has lost its staging ground in Afghanistan. And international cooperation against terrorism has hampered its ability to move fighters, plan strikes and raise money.

Yet bin Laden's deadly enterprise appears to have been at work -- if nothing else as an inspiration -- from Indonesia to Morocco.

Moroccan officials believe Al Qaeda and the Moroccan group Salafia Jihadia, held responsible for May 16 homicide bombings in Casablanca that killed 45, have operational links. Some suspects have testified about undergoing military training in Afghanistan.

In the early days, bin Laden may have envisioned himself only as "the spiritual leader of international jihad," or holy war, Rashwan said.

But in the 1980s, bin Laden met a Palestinian preacher, Sheik Abdullah Yousef Azzam, who argued that jihad required Muslims to get to the front lines wherever Islam was under siege. He also argued that jihad meant fighting with guns and grenades.

Bin Laden and Azzam worked together to mobilize Arabs to fight alongside Afghans against the Soviets -- Azzam supplying the inspirational rhetoric and bin Laden, son of a wealthy Saudi family, the money. Azzam was killed in Afghanistan in 1989.

Azzam's ideas and Bin Laden's money and hawk-eyed charisma were a powerful combination. Bin Laden issued fatwas, or religious rulings, as if he had trained as an Islamic scholar -- though the degree he earned in 1981 from a Saudi university was in public administration. His growing prominence coincided with increasing use among Muslim militants of the technological tools developed in the West -- the Internet and satellite television -- that would help make him internationally known.

Bin Laden's ambition soon grew more deadly.

Near-simultaneous bombings at the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya that killed 231 people, including 12 Americans, came just months after bin Laden and militant leaders representing more established Egyptian, Kashmiri, Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups formed the International Front for Fighting Jews and Crusades in February of 1998. The United States later indicted bin Laden in the bombings.

In October 2000, terrorists rammed a bomb-laden boat into the USS Cole in a harbor off Yemen, killing 17 U.S. sailors. Again, bin Laden's network was blamed.

By the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, in which homicide hijackers flew planes into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, bin Laden was identifying himself as leader of "Al Qaeda al-Jihad," or "the base of holy war."