When US and Pakistani officials said this week that one conspirator in the foiled plan to bomb trans-Atlantic airliners was a "liaison" to al-Qaeda, they suggested that his arrest proved the group was linked to the scheme. Rashid Rauf, a Briton, had trained in the group's camps in the 1990s and was "a key al-Qaeda operative," one Pakistani official said.
But counterterrorism experts said on Saturday that the focus of government officials and the public on al-Qaeda, a term today with deep connotations but elusive meaning, may be misplaced.
They say the Qaeda label remains useful shorthand for the news media and for officials who want to tap the powerful emotions associated with the Sept. 11 attacks. But to suggest that the terrorist threat today is represented by the organization directly commanded by Osama bin Laden is to oversimplify a complex international movement, the specialists say.
"If you think of al-Qaeda as the group that did 9/11, I don't think it's a very useful question," said Marc Sageman, a former CIA officer and author of a 2004 book closely studied in intelligence agencies, Understanding Terror Networks.
"There is no such thing as al-Qaeda as it existed before we went to Afghanistan and destroyed it," Sageman said.
As the latest plot suggests, he said, that does not mean total victory is at hand.
"We won the war against the old al-Qaeda. But we're not winning against the global social movement that al-Qaeda was part of, because more and more kids are joining the movement," he said.
Michael Scheuer, a former head of the CIA unit that focuses on bin Laden, says there may be more left of the old al-Qaeda than Sageman thinks. But he, too, doubts that bin Laden had anything to do with the airliner plot and emphasizes al-Qaeda's role as the inspiration and support for a broader movement.
"There are an amazing number of people who are connected to al-Qaeda" through training or funding, Scheuer said. "But the connection is not command and control."
Some government officials acknowledge privately that Washington has been slow to consider the possibility that the international jihad movement is without any central organization.
"We're still wrapped up in thinking that this is a hierarchical organization," said one intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"We have a major problem out there, because the fact is that there is no command and control, and there are so many copycats out there," the intelligence official said.
Top US officials said in their first comments after news of the arrests in Britain that the scheme bore "the hallmarks" of al-Qaeda.
Media coverage dwelt at length on the possibility of ties to the group. Then the identification on Friday of Rauf appeared to nail down a connection.
Speculation about a possible role of another suspected militant still being sought in Pakistan, Matiur Rehman, an explosives expert, has added to the notion of a Qaeda role, though few agree on whether he is linked with the group's operations in Pakistan.
Rehman is a "person of interest" in the airliner plot but it is unclear whether he played a role, the intelligence official said. Even top intelligence officials are uncertain about what is left of al-Qaeda beyond its top two leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, who are believed to be in hiding in Pakistan.