There’s something that confuses me. On one hand, terrorism experts talk about the fact that al-Qaeda is so decentralized that rounding up its leaders won’t do much good. I always hear about autonomous cells that act without approval or instruction from al-Qaeda’s leadership.

On the other hand, whenever I read a list of the members of al-Qaeda’s leadership, included in it is a list of operations they helped to plan. Mohammed Atef was supposedly one of the planners of the September 11 attacks, other guys helped with that or with the embassy bombings. We also know that all of the al-Qaeda members spent time training in Afghanistan, and we heard Osama bin Laden say that the people who carried out the attacks on September 11 weren’t told of their mission until right before they boarded the planes. Finally, it seems like cells all over the world work to support each other. The Spanish cell that was broken up a few weeks ago engaged in petty crime and siphoned the funds to the September 11 crew, among others.

So which is it? It seems to me that removing al-Qaeda’s leadership should do severe damage to the organization. Is there something I’m missing?