The German federal police, the BKA, was once famous for its relentless, coolly efficient pursuit of terrorists. Hundreds of BKA agents eliminated the first three generations of the Red Army Faction, a terror organization that killed scores of politicians and civilians in the 1970s and 1980s. Then the hunt was on for the fourth generation. Hundreds of millions of dollars were invested; again, legions of agents were dispatched.
But finally, in 1997, BKA experts admitted there may never have been a fourth-generation Red Army Faction. The experts had been hunting a phantom. Lone-wolf terrorists or isolated veterans had committed the few, random attacks that occurred.
It was a striking example of how a police force -- and a whole nation -- fell for propaganda from the terrorists, which was pumped up by almost obsessive media hype. Looking at the current reporting on Al Qaeda, the question is: Is history repeating itself?
This month, at the BKA's annual conference, Germany's top investigators and international experts discussed what they had discovered since Sept. 11 about Al Qaeda and the international Islamist terror network. The main thing they have learned is that there is less than meets the eye.
Yes, Al Qaeda was once centralized, structured and powerful, but that was before the U.S. pulverized its camps and leadership in Afghanistan.
In other words, this battle in the war on terror might already be over. It's as an ex-CIA agent once said: "I quit the agency at the end of the Cold War because I was tired of politicians making me describe the Soviet Union as a 20-foot giant -- when it was really only a dwarf."
For more than three years, Al Qaeda has been described by investigators, academics and self-styled experts as an almost uncontrollable menace. It was said to work closely with organized crime, to have access to unlimited funds, to have hidden those funds in gold and diamonds, to be capable of moving its money with a sophisticated finance system to whatever country Osama bin Laden chose to attack next.
The media tended to believe the worst and amplify it. The general idea was that a perfect crime such as 9/11 needed a perfect organization behind it. Most of the descriptions of Al Qaeda proved more legend than fact.
Al Qaeda never had a "macro-financing" structure, said Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere, the dean of Europe's anti-terrorism investigators. In fact, analyzing the clusters of activists, he found that there were never large flows of external money financing any attack. In nearly a decade of searching, all Bruguiere was able to find was "micro-financing" activists raising the little money they needed to survive and commit their crimes through credit card or debit card fraud. They turned out to be petty thieves, not grand gangsters.
The terrorists did not need a lot of money to finance the attacks in Madrid, Bali and Tunisia. "They could carry around the money they needed in cash," said Nikos Passas of Northeastern University in Boston.
There is, according to Passas, no evidence that Al Qaeda ever invested in the gold market or in African diamonds. It never moved money around the world through the traditional and untraceable informal money transfer systems known as hawalas. It used Western Union.
That didn't stop the United Nations and the United States from harnessing the hawalas with rigid controls, which hurt the hundreds of small businesses in the United States, the Middle East and Pakistan that rely on them.
Meanwhile, authorities pay little or no attention to much simpler ways to transfer money globally. PayPal, for example, which has become the de facto international bank of the Internet, is open to anyone with a credit card.
All too often, investigators have fallen for myths -- many times fed by the terrorists themselves. The BKA has constructed profiles of 60 radical Islamists. "There was no pattern, no model ... every activist had individual motives to become radical," a German investigator said.
But being less structured doesn't mean the terrorists are less dangerous or easier to stop. Quite the contrary. The smaller the fish, the tighter the net needed to catch it. "We take every case seriously now precisely because there is no pattern," one German investigator said.
Investigators admit that 3 1/2 years after 9/11, they know next to nothing about the motives of Islamic terrorists. Knowing so little means they have few means to predict -- or prevent -- future acts.