CAIRO, Egypt – The Al Qaeda terrorist network, its command structure hit hard by Washington's war on terrorism, is mutating into a hard-to-define web of Islamic militants who share Usama bin Laden's ideology and goals even if they operate under other names.
Al Qaeda connections have emerged from terror attacks in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and now Spain, fueled by a recruiting drive by radical Muslims who fought with bin Laden in Afghanistan, security officials told The Associated Press.
For months, especially in Iraq where attacks on coalition forces and Iraqis who work with them are near-daily events, little-known groups have been claiming responsibility.
The veracity of the claims remains unknown, but the attacks bear the hallmarks of this new Al Qaeda — a loose-knit cluster of small groups not controlled by a mother organization but well aware of what is expected of them and sometimes even recruited by bin Laden's trainees.
At this point, experts say, there is no practical difference.
"If you believe in their ideas, then you are one of them. You are Al Qaeda," said Abdel Rahim Ali, an Egyptian expert on radical Islamic groups and author of "Alliance of Terror, Al Qaida Organization."
Al Qaeda, he said, is now "separate and loose groups bound only by an ideology, but working independently. They know the general guidelines and they know what is required to do," he told the AP. "It is [Al Qaeda] recruiting by remote control."
The individuals or small groups that act under Al Qaeda's umbrella are believed to draw on their own resources or do their own simple fund-raising, such as collecting donations in mosques. However, bin Laden — who is not thought to be issuing direct orders for attacks — clearly remains their inspiration and Al Qaeda what they aspire to be.
The Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades (search) — an organization that said it carried out Thursday's train station bombings in Madrid — now signs its statements with Al Qaeda in parentheses. Another group, the Iraqi Islamic Army (search), posted fliers last week in a mosque in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, claiming it is working with Al Qaeda and threatening U.S. forces in Kuwait.
Al Qaeda may be giving new life to older Islamic militant groups too. Salafia Jihadia (search), a Moroccan Al Qaeda-inspired group, was known to be active in the late 1990s. But it apparently was not considered enough of a threat to be singled out by the Bush administration on its list of terror-sponsoring groups immediately after Sept. 11.
Last May, however, investigators linked the group to a Casablanca bombing that killed 33 people plus 12 bombers, and some suspected members have told authorities they received training in Afghanistan.
One of three Moroccans arrested by Spanish authorities in connection with the Madrid bombings, Jamal Zougam, is accused of links to the Casablanca attack and the jailed suspected leader of Al Qaeda in Spain. It's not clear if Zougam is affiliated with any group.
In many cases, authorities don't know how strong Al Qaeda ties are to various groups or if their claims of responsibility are true.
The United States believes Abu Hafs al-Masri — the organization that said it carried out the Madrid bombings — sometimes falsely claims to be acting on behalf of Al Qaeda. The group has taken responsibility for terror attacks worldwide, including the deadly Aug. 19 bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad and even claimed the blackouts in the United States and London last year.
Spain's government is studying the group's claim to the Madrid bombings and is also looking into whether the Basque separatist ETA group was responsible despite its denials.
Authorities are trying to identify a purported Al Qaeda operative in a videotape found after a telephone tip to a Madrid TV station. It allegedly contained a responsibility claim from "the military spokesman for Al Qaeda in Europe, Abu Dujan al Afghani." Who he really is — or if he exists — remains a mystery.
Saad al-Faqih, a Saudi dissident and head of the Islamic Reform Movement (search), said Al Qaeda had to change after Sept. 11. Since then, Washington has pursued Al Qaeda on its turf — in the villages, mountains and caves of Afghanistan — and cut its financing by pushing for global vigilance over money transactions and freezing of assets of suspected backers.
"There is no organization as such that you can call Al Qaeda now, but rather followers who believe in the ideas of bin Laden and can organize themselves in small cells and carry out attacks," al-Faqih said.
Audio or videotape messages from bin Laden or his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri (search), are believed to be used as general guidelines by those versed in Al Qaeda's ways — they can read between the lines and conclude where bin Laden might like them to act.
Such statements, particularly important because telephone lines are too risky for remaining Al Qaeda commanders to use, provide some of what little glue there might be between small, separate groups.
In October, a taped threat thought to be from bin Laden included Spain among countries to be attacked "at the appropriate time and place."
An audiotape obtained last month by Al-Jazeera satellite television, believed to be from al-Zawahri, challenges President Bush's claim that nearly two-thirds of Al Qaeda's known leaders were captured or killed.
However, the security officials said Al Qaeda's command has been reduced from about 60 men at its peak to perhaps 20 to 30, mostly loyalists and trusted aides to bin Laden believed to be hiding in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.
While bin Laden and the nucleus of his followers are trying to avoid capture by U.S. special forces and Pakistani troops, these security officials are trying to regroup in Chechnya, Bosnia, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
Since many fought with bin Laden in Afghanistan, they are well-trained, indoctrinated and highly motivated. If Al Qaeda is an academy, these people are the graduates, one security official told AP.
Security officials say these followers have been active recruiting young people among militants in the Muslim world, particularly in Saudi Arabia. The result of their recruiting, they say, are these smaller groups.
U.S. and European officials clearly are concerned about Al Qaeda's reach.
"The steady growth of Usama bin Laden's anti-American sentiment through the wider Sunni [Muslim] extremist movement and the broad dissemination of Al Qaeda's destructive expertise ensure that a serious threat will remain for the foreseeable future, with or without Al Qaeda in the picture," CIA Director George Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee last month.
Gen. Henri Bentegeat, head of France's armed forces, called Al Qaeda a "hydra with several heads." Speaking Monday in Paris, he said: "If we catch one head there will be others."