Where Are They Now? The Al-Qaeda Edition

Things looked pretty ominous for al-Qaeda in 2003 and 2004. In the State of the Union speeches from those years and the infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech from May 2003, George W. Bush touted the military advances made on the organization that financed, planned and executed the attacks of September 11, 2001:

“All told, more than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries. Many others have met a different fate. Let’s put it this way—they are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies.”

“We have the terrorists on the run. We’re keeping them on the run. One by one, the terrorists are learning the meaning of American justice.”

“We’re tracking al Qaeda around the world, and nearly two-thirds of their known leaders have now been captured or killed.”

“[A]s of tonight, nearly one-half of al Qaeda’s senior operatives have been captured or killed.”
“As we fight this war, we will remember where it began—here, in our own country.”

It seems, however, that the Bush administration doesn’t remember how it began and who started it.

From a recently published National Intelligence Estimate, we find that al-Qaeda (spelled Al-Qa’ida in the NIE) is as strong as it was before 9/11 and is safely ensconced in northwest Pakistan. Some quotes:
“Al-Qa’ida is and will remain the most serious terrorist threat to the [U.S.] Homeland, as its central leadership continues to plan high-impact plots, while pushing others in extremist Sunni communities to mimic its efforts and to supplement its capabilities. We assess the group has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability, including: a safehaven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), operational lieutenants, and its top leadership. Although we have discovered only a handful of individuals in the United States with ties to al-Qa’ida senior leadership since 9/11, we judge that al-Qa’ida will intensify its efforts to put operatives here.”

“We assess that al-Qa’ida will continue to enhance its capabilities to attack the Homeland through greater cooperation with regional terrorist groups. Of note, we assess that al-Qa’ida will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI), its most visible and capable affiliate and the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the Homeland. In addition, we assess that its association with AQI helps al-Qa’ida to energize the broader Sunni extremist community, raise resources, and to recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for Homeland attacks.”

This report highlights three major mistakes on the part of the Bush administration.
1) Taking the eye off the ball of al-Qaeda and becoming distracted by Iraq. There are approximately 19,000 troops (coalition, not just U.S.) in Afghanistan. There are about 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. As the focus has strayed from al-Qaeda to Iraq, al-Qaeda has slowly and effectively reconstituted itself in Pakistan (visualize the creepy mercury-like terminator in T-2). Essentially, the bad guys of 9/11 have had time and quarter to regroup while the Bush administration has chased a different rabbit.
2) Failing to execute operations in Iraq well enough to stop AQI’s infiltration, terrorism, and recruitment efforts in Iraq. Al-Qaeda didn’t exist in Iraq before the U.S. invaded. But since then, Iraq has become a favorite location for al-Qaeda to recruit and train new members. It has also used the war in Iraq as a wedge to drive susceptible Sunnis to extremism. Essentially, the administration’s bungled attempt at war has exacerbated the situation by giving al-Qaeda a foothold and recruiting ground in yet another country.
3) Failing to hold Pakistan sufficiently responsible and accountable for activities within its borders. According to a July 8, 2007 New York Times story, “A secret military operation in early 2005 to capture senior members of al Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal areas was aborted at the last minute after top Bush administration officials decided it was too risky and could jeopardize relations with Pakistan, according to intelligence and military officials.” Donald Rumsfeld, then the Secretary of War, was “concerned that it could cause a rift with Pakistan.” Pakistan’s tribal areas have “become virtual havens for the terrorist network.” This is all because we need Pakistan’s help in the war against terror? Well, obviously we aren’t getting it. Pakistan has no incentive to find Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan because 1) they have already said he’s not there, and 2) it might require the presence of U.S. and coalition forces. All of Bush’s talk of letting the generals run the war instead of the politicians sounds really hollow in light of this information.

The first two mistakes are over and done—the bell can’t be unrung. This third point, however, is an ongoing problem. If the administration continues to focus on Iraq and treat Pervez Musharaf with kid-gloves, we’ll never see the killers of 9/11 brought to justice, despite all the tough talk over the years.


Mike W. says:


I don’t necessarily think that the Bush administration bungled the war…they bungled the nation building. As for the war, as stated, we shouldn’t have been there in the first place since there was no Al-Qa’ida In Iraq at that point. It’s unfortunate that we continue to give the government, especially the executive branch, carte blanche with regard to foreign policy. It doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s Carter or Reagan in Central America or Iran or Lebanon, Clinton or GWB hunting Bin Laden, or Kennedy, Johnson or Nixon in Southeast Asia. U.S. efforts have been abject failures. Until we decide that freedom and human rights matter more than economic concerns and power politics, our foreign policy will continue to dig much bigger holes than it fills.

Traveler says:

How can we not think that the war in Iraq was not a disaster? The only success out of that operation was to remove Saddam from power (and that could be argued as a failure considering the current state of affairs). No weapons of mass destruction were ever found (which was the main argument for entering into this quagmire in the first place). The oil production that was to fund the coalition forces and help rebuild the country is utterly useless due to sectarian and terrorist sabotage to the pipelines and wells.

The careless and ill-planned occupation left a power vacuum that was quickly exploited by the same forces we claim to be fighting against. We have created a much more dangerous situation in Iraq than existed there previously. If the Iraqi government representatives manage to survive their drive to work, they manage to not get much constructive accomplished other than accuse everyone else of corruption.

Dave is right on in citing that the US has lost focus on the “war on terror.” As I recall we were not going to rest until bin Laden was pushing up daisies, yet the vast majority of our military strength is bogged down in a hopeles conflict. We can’t pull out without leaving the country to the terrorists and we can’t stay because the divides will only deepen.

I’ll believe we are involved in a war on terror when we stop fueling the terrorist ideology and actually begin to fight it.

Mike W. says:


I agree with Dave that it is a disaster there. My argument is that the war (up til Mission accomplished) was an incredible success militarily. Objectives were accomplished with very little collateral damage and little damage to the U.S. military. It was a military success. The nation-building has been an unmitigated disaster. But it was a very bad idea to even be there in the first place. I hope you understand what I am distinguishing.

I think that the “war on terror” is a terrible term and should be junked. It doesn’t describe anything real. Wars on ideologies allow the U.S. government to encroach on rights with executive orders and Communist witch hunts etc. In Orwell’s 1984, it didn’t matter who the war was against, as long as there was a war to justify the promotion of jingoism and taking away rights.

The war we should be fighting should be against a specific entity for a specific reason, but that would require to many questions be answered.

Centrist says:

Yesterday, Bush made a big speech explaining, in very patronizing tones in my opinion, the relationship between al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and al-Qaeda core, as headed by Bin Laden and safely tucked away in Pakistan. What he failed to address (and disunderstands) in my opinion is the relationship between the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq and the growth, recruitment, training, and exposure of AQI.

If the U.S. hadn’t let itself be beguiled into a war in Iraq, AQI would not have the devil it’s using (infidel occupation) to drive fence-sitters into their camp. Also, it would not have the fertile recruiting grounds it finds in the quagmire that is Iraq, or the on-the-job training fields it finds in a battle against occupying forces and Shiites.

Although the invasion of Iraq by U.S. forces did not create bad men like Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, it did create the breeding grounds for a viable AQI . The fact that Bush disunderstands this for political reasons shows his extreme hubris, foolishness, and condescension toward the intelligence of the American people.

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