Terrorists struck a major blow in 2004 in Spain. Explosives ripped apart a Madrid train in March, killing more than 200 people. The attack was widely credited with propelling Spain's Socialist Party to power and the country's subsequent troop withdrawal from Iraq. But, according to analysts, the last year has also brought some progress in the global war on terrorism, even if it may be difficult to perceive.
The world's most-wanted man, Osama bin Laden, remains on the loose. The al-Qaida leader has been thought to be hiding in the mountainous region along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. But, speaking recently on CNN's Late Edition program, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf gave this candid and somber assessment of bin Laden's whereabouts.
"We do not know where he is," he said. "He may be anywhere. He is alive, that I am sure of."
Osama bin Laden's capture would constitute a major milestone in the war on terrorism. Without such a watershed event, however, daily newspaper headlines are unlikely to capture progress in global anti-terror efforts, since the most obvious measure of success is the absence of an attack, or the absence of news.
Three years after the September 11 attacks, the United States weathered 2004 without a major security-related incident. That, despite a presidential campaign season in which the Republican National Convention was held in New York, blocks away from where the World Trade Center towers once stood.
Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge gave a cautiously-optimistic assessment upon announcing his resignation in November.
"If you increase your security and your vigilance, that is a deterrent [against terrorism]," he said. "Can I tell you today that there were 'X' number of incidents [attacks] that we were able to thwart or prevent? I cannot. Am I confident that we probably have? Yes I am."
Terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman, of the U.S.-based Rand Corporation, says the last year has seen sustained and extensive cooperation between the United States and its allies in monitoring and combating potential threats.
"What remains the main accomplishment of the last year is that often, despite divisiveness with many of our [the United States'] closest allies, nonetheless bilateral cooperation in combating terrorism has remained remarkably strong, and in some instances has become even stronger," he said.
Mr. Hoffman argues, in one respect, the Madrid train bombing may have backfired on terrorists. He says the attacks jolted European nations into a higher state of alert regarding Islamic extremism within their own borders and prompted even more rigorous efforts to collect and share intelligence.
Can the war on terrorism be separated from other major efforts on the world stage, such as the battle for stability and democracy in Iraq? During his successful re-election campaign, President Bush argued that Iraq stands at the heart of his campaign to defeat terrorism.
"Iraq now has a strong prime minister, and national elections are scheduled for January,' he said. "We are serving a vital and historic cause that will make our country safer. Free societies in the Middle East will be hopeful societies that no longer feed resentments and breed violence for export. Free governments in the Middle East will fight terrorists instead of harboring them."
But other world leaders and many analysts paint a darker picture: that the conflict in Iraq is breeding new hatred of the United States and its allies, spawning the next generation of terrorists that will plague the international community for years, perhaps decades, to come. Magnus Ranstorp directs the Center for the Study of Terrorism at St. Andrews University in Scotland.
"I am very pessimistic about the ability of the international community to resolve the regional conflicts that are fueling al-Qaida's ideology," he said. "We have won individual battles [against terrorists], but I think overall we are losing the war [on terrorism] because of the geopolitical environment with Iraq and other regional conflicts continuing. That will lead to more [al-Qaida] recruits."
Professor Ranstorp argues that the term "war on terrorism" ceased to have a universally-recognized meaning after the post-September 11 invasion of Afghanistan.
"It is a term embraced by the Bush administration to be focusing on a definable end game, versus a European approach - the management of a long-term threat, managing down [reducing] the risks," he said.
What of the year to come? The Rand Corporation's Bruce Hoffman says the international community would be wise to devote more resources to combating the root causes of terrorism.
"What we have to do is not just focus on the current generation of terrorists or even the next generation - because in essence we have lost them, they are being trained now," he said. "We have to look to the generation beyond the next one and ensure that what we are doing now in the war on terrorism will have profound [positive] repercussions later on so that we are not [still] fighting this war in 30 years."
Mr. Hoffman says, having lost its former base of operations in Afghanistan and with much of its leadership captured or killed, al-Qaida is weaker today than it was three years ago. But he argues that ultimate success in the war on terrorism means not just eradicating al-Qaida and other groups, but also defeating the extremist ideology that sustains them.