The U.S. State Department reports that significant international terrorist acts rose from 138 in 2002 to 175 last year and injuries from them jumped more than 50%. But this year, security forces in both Saudi Arabia and Algeria have killed or captured major insurgent leaders. Pakistan, Bahrain and Morocco have had similar success.
At least on the home front, America has not done badly either, says Neil Livingstone, director of Global Options, an international risk management company, and author of nine books on terrorism:
"There has not been a major terrorist attack in the United States since nine-eleven. I think that is a real testimonial to how quickly our law enforcement and intelligence communities were able to mobilize their resources and in many cases reform to deal with our problem here at home."
John Pike, director of Global Security.org, agrees progress has been made with Iraq now the biggest terrorist threat:
"The problem in Iraq is that we have brought large numbers of Americans in close proximity to aspiring terrorists. They may not be able to attack America here in the United States, but we have made it too easy for them to attack Americans in Iraq. Part of the challenge in Iraq is that the insurgency is relatively weak, and the tools of terror are the only ones that are available to them."
While Mr. Pike sees Iraq as an integral part of the war on terrorism, Mr. Livingstone says others do not. They insist the war in Iraq is not to be confused with the war on terrorism:
"So some countries that we had looked to for a great deal of help in the past are not helping as much as they should today. At the same time the war in Iraq has been a catalyst for all the jihadist movements in the world and is probably stimulating new terrorism and bringing in recruits and money to the jihadist organizations."
That is the point made by an anonymous senior CIA officer who writes in a new book, Imperial Hubris, that the Iraq war has played into Osama bin Laden's hands. Iraq and Afghanistan are "seething with anti-U.S. sentiment, fertile grounds for the expansion of al-Qaeda and kindred groups." In The Washington Times,, columnist Harlan Ullman writes that looking at the Middle East altogether, "a perfect storm may be brewing, an unintended destructive spiral of chaos and violence."
But in The New Republic magazine, Senator John McCain argues that the Iraq war is intended to reduce terrorism by challenging the autocracy that breeds it: "Establishing a democratic Iraq in the heart of the region was and remains the best chance for encouraging the necessary transformation of the Middle East."
The principal terrorist group remains al-Qaeda, says Mr. Livingstone, and it is elusive.
"We have driven the Taleban government out of power in Afghanistan, but the consequence of that, because they were the protector of al-Qaeda, is that al-Qaeda has now been dispersed and gone underground in something like 36 or more countries around the world."
London's International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates 18,000 al-Qaeda members may have escaped Afghanistan to spread terror elsewhere. But they have been successfully targeted with over 70% of their top leadership killed or captured. Still, recruitment continues. Jason Burke, author of books on terrorism, says bin Laden is closer to achieving his goals than the west is to deterring him.
But how powerful is he? The Economist calls him a figurehead. Neil Livingstone says he presides over a loose international network whose elements go their own way:
"He is still the first among equals. He is still the symbol of the jihadist movement. If he were to die, it would be great blow to that movement, but it would not be the death knell of the movement by any means. When he speaks, everyone in the movement take notice. If he were to reverse his position on a particular country or a particular issue, that would profound ramifications throughout the jihadjst movement."
Bin Laden is not a mastermind, says Mr. Livingstone, but apparently a micro-manager, since he seems to have been deeply involved in planning the September eleven attacks. John Pike says bin Laden, whatever his actual role, is clearly an influence:
"We are seeing terrorist uprisings in Nigeria and Thailand taking place simultaneously. Certainly al-Qaeda is giving inspiration to a lot of groups that are acting locally and recruiting locally. It is a fairly mixed bag in terms of jihadist ideologies, but I think we are facing a global phenomenon. It is a global problem."
It is a global problem deserving a global answer, says the International Institute for Strategic Studies. And also local ones, such as finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian struggle that enflames the Muslim world.