Many analysts have noted the transformation of Al Qaeda from an organization to a movement---that is, from a top-down, centrally directed terrorist group to a decentralized "franchise" operation, in which local operators like Abu Zarqawi and the Madrid bombers make their own plans and pursue their own tactical objectives.
John Robb, the systems analyst behind the blog Global Guerrillas, argues that this evolution may actually have improved Al Qaeda's long-term survivability and operational effectiveness, even if it rules out large, complex attacks like 9/11. A highly decentralized network of terrorist cells, he argues, can use something analogous to market mechanisms to coordinate its actions---learning to avoid the mistakes and imitate the successes of other cells.
If true, it could mark the birth of an entirely new type of conflict---a "fifth generation" warfare in which the enemy not only isn't a nation state, but isn't even an entity---like the Viet Cong or the Shining Path or the PLO. It's almost impossible to imagine how a security establishment that yet hasn't learned how to fight a fourth generation insurgency is going to cope with that.
The franchise and the virus work on the same principle: what thrives in one place with thrive in another. You just have to find a sufficiently virulent business plan, condense it into a three-ring binder - its DNA - xerox it, and embed it in the fertile lining of a well-traveled highway, preferably one with a left-turn lane. Then the growth will expand until it runs up against its property lines.
If Terror is now nothing more than a franchise---anyone with a high school education, access to a public library (you don't even need to check books out), and a grudge can start a cell---then we need to rethink how we deal with it. How do you deal with spoiled brats who throw tantrums? Ignore them.
What do these kids want? (1) They want to be on TV. (2) They want you to be afraid of them.