When the leading edge of a nation's war effort is a mere manhunt - the dead-or-alive quest for Osama bin Laden - the most important question is obvious: How valuable would one man's removal be in rooting out a multinational network of terror?
The rosiest view is that it would be a triumph of grand strategy; that the loss of bin Laden's financial influence and logistical skill would demoralize and crush his Al Qaeda organization, similar to the way the 1999 capture of guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan has crippled the Kurdish uprising in southeast Turkey.
The more pessimistic - and more prevalent - assessment says the loss of bin Laden would be only a tactical blow, leaving intact not just his network but, in the worst case, a mesh of networks that might have become intertwined with elements of the Iran-sponsored terror organization, Hezbollah, which until Sept. 11 held the dubious distinction of having killed the most Americans of any such group.
"Bin Laden is part of the problem. Bin Laden needs to be taken out," says Milt Bearden, a CIA field officer in Afghanistan and a station chief in Pakistan during Al Qaeda's formative years. "But the American way, the easy way, has been to say that bin Laden is the answer. ... Just making him the metaphor for all this doesn't work anymore. The removal of one man won't solve the problem."
Larry Johnson, managing director for BERG Associates, a Washington security and anti-terrorism consultant, says, "Clearly, there are three or four other guys whose leadership roles are important as well, but [bin Laden] does seem to be the glue that holds the organization together. ... Ocalan, I think, is an appropriate example of what can happen when you take off the head of an organization."
This wide range of opinion is in itself unsettling, indicating just how little is known about the breadth, organization and workings of Al Qaeda or of bin Laden's day-to-day role in its affairs.
The State Department's most recent annual Patterns of Global Terrorism report offers only a fuzzy estimate of Al Qaeda's strength, saying it "may have several hundred to several thousand members," with "cells in a number of countries."
Until recently, bin Laden's operatives abroad were known almost as much for their blunders - trying to collect the deposit on their rental car after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, for example - as for their destructiveness.
"Before this, they'd always sort of been the Keystone Cops of terrorism," Johnson says.
But if Al Qaeda was behind last week's attacks, not only did its operatives succeed in careful planning and devastation, they also defied a long-held belief that terrorists lose much of their suicidal zeal when they're long removed from the fervor of bases and training camps.
"I don't even think Soviet 'sleeper' agents performed as well," Johnson says. "These guys were committed and steady and able to turn it back on when they needed to, despite a steady diet of [American culture]."
As a result, the prevailing tendency might be to overstate bin Laden's capabilities.
"You hear some people saying he's in 50 countries," Johnson says. "Hell, I'm not sure GM is in 50 countries."
Plenty is at stake for the United States in trying to make the correct assessment - military planning, as well as diplomatic maneuvering. But some of the most detailed information available on Al Qaeda is five years old.
It came from former Al Qaeda member Jamal Ahmed Al Fadl, a Sudanese citizen who began cooperating with U.S. authorities in 1996, after becoming disillusioned with Al Qaeda and stealing money from the organization. He was a key witness in this year's trial of four men convicted in May for their roles in the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
The investigation of those bombings also turned up several Al Qaeda "field manuals," offering advice to "brothers" (operatives). The tips ranged from how to most effectively stab someone during an assassination attempt ("1. Anywhere in the rib cage" if attacking from the front) to a list of nine "Security Measures that Should be Observed in Public Transportation" ("6. The brother traveling on a 'special mission' should not get involved in religious issues [advocating good and denouncing evil] or day-to-day matters [seat reservation.]")
Al Fadl's testimony sketched an organizational structure with separate committees to handle military, financial and religious matters. There was even a public relations specialist - Abu Muab, nicknamed "Reuter," who published a daily newsletter.
Al Fadl also detailed his travels and experiences, passing through a variety of guest houses and training camps in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sudan.