In the months after September 11, President Bush declared victory over the man he once pledged to capture “dead or alive” and began turning his focus to Iraq:
I am deeply concerned about Iraq. … I truly am not that concerned about [bin Laden]. … We shoved him out more and more on the margins. He has no place to train his al Qaeda killers anymore. [President Bush, 3/13/02]
The results have been predictable: As the U.S. has been mired in an Iraqi civil war, bin Laden has slipped away from the crosshairs and is using his freedom to help al Qaeda resurge all over the Middle East. U.S. News reports this week that “bin Laden already has a safe haven in Pakistan — and may be stronger than ever” as al Qaeda “retains the ability to organize complex, mass-casualty attacks and inspire others.” Bin Laden is behind much of this resurgence:
The broader movement inspired by al Qaeda has only grown bigger, largely because of the group’s powerful propaganda machine. Bin Laden and Zawahiri have been able to fill in the gaps between their megaplots with a rising stream of smaller-scale, homegrown attacks.
Now, well over five years after 9/11, some administration officials are conceding they may have been too hasty in declaring victory over bin Laden:
Privately, U.S. officials concede that they had overestimated the damage they had inflicted on al Qaeda’s network. The captures of successive operational commanders, including 9/11 planner Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, amounted only to temporary setbacks; they were replaced with disturbing ease. “We understand better how al Qaeda is withstanding the offensive that was launched against it in 2001 and later,” says a senior U.S. government official.
Bush is using the rise of al Qaeda as fodder to promote his misguided escalation plan in Iraq. He now claims that al Qaeda has made Iraq a central front in the war on terror, but al Qaeda leaders view Bush’s Iraq strategy as more opportunity to launch attacks against U.S. troops. “Iraq has, of course, been an undeniable boon for al Qaeda, both as a battleground and a rallying cause,” U.S. News adds.