PARIS — A spate of suicide bombings in several countries illustrates that Al Qaeda has survived by mutating into a more decentralized network relying on local allies to launch more frequent attacks on varied targets, experts say.
In bombings from Turkey to Morocco, experts say, evidence suggests that Al Qaeda provided support through training, financing or ideological inspiration to local extremists. Through an evolving and loose alliance of semiautonomous terrorist cells, the network has been able to export its violence and "brand name" with only limited involvement in the attacks themselves.
"Al Qaeda as an ideology is now stronger than Al Qaeda as an organization," said Mustafa Alani of the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London. "What we are witnessing now is a major shift in Al Qaeda's strategy. I believe it is successful. Now they are not on the defensive. They are on the offensive."
A U.S.-led assault on Al Qaeda has left many of the network's leaders dead, in jail or on the run. Still, counter-terrorism officials have linked Al Qaeda or its followers to a drumbeat of attacks in Russia, Indonesia, India, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and the Philippines, dating back to spring. Intent on maximizing the propaganda impact of its actions, the network has shifted from a single-minded focus on American interests to a broader mix including Jewish and Muslim targets.
Al Qaeda allegedly gave the direct order for some of the attacks, investigators say, including one in Indonesia and the May bombing of a residential compound in Riyadh, the Saudi Arabian capital. But in others, its local affiliates appeared to have operated more independently. The May suicide bombings in Casablanca, Morocco, are seen as a model of the network's emerging strategy.
U.S. and Iraqi authorities say several suicide car bombings -- at an Italian military police base last week and at the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross and three Baghdad police stations in late October -- were the work of foreign Islamic extremists affiliated with Al Qaeda.
There is growing debate about who is responsible for attacks in Iraq. An array of insurgents, including forces loyal to former President Saddam Hussein, seek to end the U.S.-led occupation. Insurgents have hit a variety of targets -- from the United Nations headquarters to the Jordanian Embassy.
U.S. authorities say about 2,000 Islamic fighters from as far away as Sudan, Algeria and Afghanistan are playing a more prominent role in the insurgency and probably are teaming up with Hussein loyalists.
The U.S. presence in Iraq is being used by extremist leaders to rally their followers to jihad, or holy war, around the world.
Authorities in Turkey say twin car bombings that killed 25 people Saturday at two synagogues in Istanbul had Al Qaeda's trademark methodology and were carried out by Turks who sympathized with the network and may have received training from it.
The global threat persists because of the years Al Qaeda spent "training the trainers" -- tens of thousands of operatives molded in the movement's camps in Afghanistan. Many have returned to their homelands and are trying to whip local extremists into killing shape, U.S. and European counter-terrorism officials say.
This diaspora of holy warriors drives a new approach that contrasts with the Sept. 11 hijackings in the United States or the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Those attacks took years of planning, with videos of potential targets brought to the group's leaders in Afghanistan for study. Such plots were executed by terrorists groomed in the camps and directed to their targets -- via phone, e-mail and messenger -- by network masterminds.
Al Qaeda has always been relatively decentralized and unstructured. But today it moves faster, inciting attacks that require less time, expertise or high-level supervision, said Matthew Levitt, a former FBI analyst and terrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"It was always a network of networks whose inner core would wait patiently for three to five years to carry out spectacular attacks," Levitt said. "What's different today is that it's not clear they can conduct attacks with that kind of command and control. So to maintain relevancy, they gave the go-ahead: Do what you can, where you can, when you can. And they are targeting softer targets more frequently."
The very name Al Qaeda, some experts say, has become shorthand for a larger jihad fed by the Sept. 11 attacks, the Iraq war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A top French counter-terrorism official cautioned against blaming Al Qaeda for every act of Islamic terrorism.