However, neither U.S. nor British officials were prepared to proclaim definitive evidence of direct involvement by Osama bin Laden.
WASHINGTON -- Strong indications of an al-Qaida link to the alleged airline bomb plot uncovered in London Thursday suggest that the terrorist network has survived and adapted despite heavy blows to its leadership and organizational structure over the past five years, U.S. intelligence officials said.
The possible evidence of an al-Qaida footprint, officials said, includes the trips made by several of the alleged plotters to Pakistan, where remaining al-Qaida leaders are believed to be ensconced, and the sophistication and scope of plans to simultaneously attack aircraft headed toward the United States. The plot, as outlined here and in London, closely parallels one begun and aborted by al-Qaida a decade ago.
Neither U.S. nor British officials were prepared Thursday to proclaim definitive evidence of direct involvement by Osama bin Laden or his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri. They acknowledged that their conclusions are to some extent inferential and based on bin Laden's repeated warnings of another major assault, the organization's known affinity for targeting commercial airliners and their belief that no other terrorist group has the brains or the capability to plan such an audacious undertaking.
Elements of the unfolding plot reflect their assessment of a newly evolved al-Qaida strategy that depends -- unlike the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- on the Internet; indirect, local recruitment of disaffected Muslim youths; and an emphasis on European passport-holders less likely to be stopped at airports.
"It tells you that the enemy, as the military is fond of saying, is both thinking and adaptable," one official said. "They've gone through a thorough process, given the increase of security that we've done on flying planes, of thinking 'is there a way we can still get on board and take airplanes down?' ... This is an extremely talented, thinking group."
Although terrorist groups in Iraq and elsewhere have long been described as having al-Qaida links, none of the significant attacks carried out since Sept. 11 have been proven to have been directly authored or orchestrated by the group. Instead, intelligence agencies here and in Europe have described bin Laden as providing "inspiration" to a new generation of "radicalized" Muslim youths spurred by their cultural isolation in the West and solidarity with Islamic battles in the Middle East. U.S. intelligence officials now identify the war in Iraq as the single most effective recruiting tool for Islamic militants.
But the alleged British plot, one intelligence official insisted Thursday, "is really, really serious. This is the real deal. Honestly. This was not the Moorish Nation," he said, referring to the arrest this summer in Miami of a rag-tag, FBI-infiltrated group allegedly plotting to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago. "We have reason to believe that this is an al-Qaida-related operation. I don't mean in terms of a bunch of wannabes finding inspiration" in bin Laden.
"The current assessment is based on indicators," said another official. "The hope is that as a result of looking into some specific things we'll be able to reach a conclusion" that is much more definitive than still-unconfirmed suspicions of al-Qaida involvement in the London transport bombings that killed 52 people in 2005 or the 2004 Madrid train bombings.
During the early days of the Afghan war, both bin Laden and al-Zawahri, along with a number of their lieutenants, were driven from Afghanistan into the mountainous border region with Pakistan. Although those two have remained alive and at liberty, the removal of other major figures from the scene -- Muhammad Atef killed in November 2001, and Khalid Abu Zubaidah, Ramzi Binalshibh and Khalid Sheik Mohammed, among others, captured in 2002 and 2003 -- has led the Bush administration, from the White House on down, to say that the leadership has been "decapitated" and the organization itself severely "degraded." Depending on its objective of the moment the White House has described bin Laden both as on the run and living in caves, and as a continuing major threat to the United States.
The question of whether he still maintains control over active terrorist operations around the world is one of constant debate and analysis within the U.S. intelligence community. Bin Laden has made frequent statements on audio tapes distributed over the Internet, and al-Zawahri appeared in a videotape as recently as last month. Both claim to lead a widespread movement involved in virtually every Islamic battle from Iraq to Indonesia that is building an anti-Western "caliphate" across the world.
Intelligence officials describe the tapes as al-Qaida's attempt to appear "relevant" and in control of widespread events it may have little to do with. But while recent intelligence analyses have focused more on the increasing likelihood of smaller, more localized terrorist attacks such as the bombing of the London underground, few have discounted bin Laden's desire to stage another major assault.
"Al-Qaida hasn't been eliminated," said a senior administration official. "It's metastasized. It's changing all the time. It's adapting to a different environment. In many ways it's weaker as an organization, I'm convinced of that. But the global battlefield and affiliated groups is expanding." Some outside experts faulted the U.S. government and its allies with allowing al-Qaida to regroup inside Pakistan after its ejection from Afghanistan. "Al-Qaida has been Pakistanized, if you will," said M J. Gohel, of the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a London security think tank.
Others were withholding judgment on al-Qaida ties to the British plot. "I would say that the core of the organization has suffered some serious blows," said Daniel Byman, director of Georgetown University's Security Studies Program. "It's harder for them to do large-scale operations successfully and their ability to do long-term planning of catastrophic events has degraded. But they still have a number of skilled operatives and global connections, and a strong desire" to stage such attacks.
Byman said, however, that he was "still very skeptical until I see more evidence of how close these guys really were" to al-Qaida. "I've read too many breathless FBI statements" over the years," he said.
Peter Neumann, director of the Center for Defense Studies at King's College in London, said that the newly-uncovered operation had all the hallmarks of al-Qaida. Neumann and others noted strong parallels to the so-called Bojinka plot planned in 1995 by Ramzi Yousef with help from his uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Yousef's plans to blow up at least a dozen trans-Pacific airliners with liquid explosive concealed in bottles of contact lens solution was aborted after a fire erupted in the Manila apartment were he was preparing the bombs.
"I'm fairly convinced they were trying to model this attempt after what Ramzi Yousef tried to do," Neumann said, noting that it was "precisely" al-Qaida's "kind of signature. They've been very fond of the transport system. They've been very fond of simultaneous, multiple attacks. I can think of no other terrorist group in the world that could be capable of something like this."