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What sort of year?

By Henry Schuster
CNN

Editor's Note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism and efforts to combat them.

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The ruins of a bus on a London street after it was ripped open by a bomb in coordinated attacks on July 7.

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(CNN) -- Shards of glass in an Amman ballroom. A makeshift memorial at the King's Cross tube station in London. A terrorist averting his eyes as his victims denounce him in an Atlanta court. These are fragments of the year in terror.

A year that began with Osama bin Laden laying hands, if you will permit the mixed metaphor, on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, appointing or anointing him the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq.

A year when bin Laden didn't speak, but al Qaeda managed to get its message out and to associate itself with the London attacks as well as attacks in Iraq.

The year ends on a semi-hopeful note with relatively peaceful elections in Iraq. But in between, there has been a horrific body count, as insurgents, foreign fighters and Zarqawi's men all have targeted Iraqi soldiers and policemen, civilians and schoolchildren as well as U.S. and coalition forces.

What I've seen

Here's what I've seen and heard this year:

A courtroom so quiet that you could hear the clank of chains as Eric Rudolph was led away to spend the rest of his life in a maximum-security prison after confessing to a series of bombings. This was just a few blocks away from Centennial Olympic Park, where Rudolph began his bombing campaign nine years earlier at the Atlanta Olympic Games.

At an earlier plea hearing, Rudolph issued an 11-page manifesto seeking to justify his actions. At his sentencing, he apologized to victims of the Olympic Park bombing. But he made it a point not to apologize for later bombings in Atlanta and Birmingham that targeted clinics that perform abortions and a lesbian nightclub, and he denounced his victims in those.

"He quotes scripture in an attempt to justify his actions. Unfortunately, that sounds a lot like other religious extremists who hide behind their religion when they set off bombs in crowded subways or fly airplanes into buildings," said one of the federal prosecutors in Rudolph's case.

I saw more terrorism in the name of religion - and its aftermath.

There were police cordons everywhere I went in London and Leeds and Birmingham while following the trail of the July 7 and July 21 bombers. Police cordons in front of British homes, where young men lived before they went out and killed in the name of Allah, or at least their version of Allah.

Police cordons in front of a housing estate in west London, where two of the alleged would-be bombers from the July 21 attacks were caught.

Police and army cordons in front of Jordanian hotels after suicide bombers from Iraq exported their terror to Amman. The ballroom of the Radisson was a post-modern nightmare - exposed ceilings and torn wallpaper, not for decorative effect, but from lethal impact.

Then, a woman calmly demonstrating on TV how she had planned to die, alongside her husband, in that ballroom. Our TV screens showed more scenes of devastation left by those who kill innocents in the name of their cause -- in Sharm el-Sheikh, New Delhi and too many other places.

An unholy alliance

In central Florida, I met a man named August Kreiss, who looked like an aging roadie for ZZ Top, with a beard longer than bin Laden's. We sat in the sunshine as his children played in a park, while he talked of forging an alliance between American white supremacists and Islamic terrorists.

It was hard to tell who he admired more: Osama bin Laden or Eric Rudolph.

In Oklahoma City, I walked across the street from the site where the Alfred Murrah Federal Building once stood -- until Timothy McVeigh bombed it and killed 168 men, women and children -- into another Federal courtroom.

There I watched a young man, who had proudly videotaped himself firebombing a synagogue, look up in shock as a jury found him guilty of his crimes. It was a bizarre coda to the 10th anniversary commemoration of the Oklahoma City bombings, which took place a week before.

The terrorism of nature

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I spoke to one of the FBI's most senior counterterrorism officials, who was in New Orleans when the storm hit and the levees broke. He compared the natural disaster to a terrorist attack and it was clear just how devastating the storm had been.

It was also clear that Katrina's aftermath showed how unprepared the government was for a large-scale disaster that could have just as easily been a terrorist attack. A dirty bomb or a chemical attack could not have emptied out a city more effectively.

The earthquake in Pakistan and the Asian tsunami, each devastating areas that had already seen their share of terrorism, were also reminders that as bad as terrorism is, a seismic shock of the natural sort can put it into perspective in a matter of hours or days.

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