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Al-Qaida Regrouping to Pre-Sept. 11 Strength, Report Says

July 12, 2007 at 6:30 PM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: From Algeria to Pakistan, through deadly bombings and video propaganda, al-Qaida and suspected affiliates are showing their renewed strength and reach throughout the Muslim world and into Western Europe.

In Algeria, a recent series of attacks included one that killed eight army soldiers. A similar attack occurred last week in Yemen. And in the U.S. today, press accounts of classified U.S. intelligence assessments said that al-Qaida has returned to pre-9/11 strength.

President Bush denied the network was as potent as it once was.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: There is a perception in the coverage that al-Qaida may be as strong today as they were prior to September 11th. That’s just simply not the case: al-Qaida is weaker today than they would have been. They are still a threat; they are still dangerous.

RAY SUAREZ: The A.P. and the Washington Post quoted the intelligence report as confirming al-Qaida’s leaders now have a safe haven in Pakistan’s northwest tribal lands bordering Afghanistan. Despite this sanctuary in Pakistan, the country’s president, Pervez Musharraf, used force this week to gain control of an Islamabad mosque seized by Islamic militants, a move condemned by Osama bin Laden’s deputy, the Egyptian physician Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Al-Qaida released another recording earlier this week that said the continued British troop presence in Iraq and Afghanistan would bring new attacks to the U.K., much like the foiled car bomb plot last month in London and the failed attack on the Glasgow airport. British investigators are exploring links to al-Qaida.

Today, President Bush reiterated that any removal of U.S. troops from Iraq would create a new haven for al-Qaida and its affiliates. Mr. Bush also explicitly tied the ongoing violence in Iraq, led in part by a group called al-Qaida in Iraq, to the attacks of 9/11.

GEORGE W. BUSH: The same folks that are bombing innocent people in Iraq were the ones who attacked us in America on September the 11th, and that’s why what happens in Iraq matters to the security here at home.

RAY SUAREZ: Pressed by reporters for evidence of that link, Mr. Bush insisted it was explicit.

GEORGE W. BUSH: Is it al-Qaida in Iraq? Yes, it is al-Qaida, just like it’s al-Qaida in parts of Pakistan. And I’m working with President Musharraf to be able to — I mean, he doesn’t want them in his country. He doesn’t want foreign fighters in the outposts of his country, and so we’re working to make sure that we continue to keep the pressure on al-Qaida. But no question, al-Qaida is dangerous for the American people.

Assessing al-Qaida's strength

Lawrence Wright
The New Yorker
It's a different organization. It's certainly more widespread. And their intentions are just as great as they were in the past.

RAY SUAREZ: How dangerous they remain was the subject of a meeting today at the White House that followed Mr. Bush's remarks to reporters.

To assess these and other al-Qaida-related developments, we're joined by Daniel Benjamin, a former National Security Council counterterrorism official during the Clinton administration and co-author of "The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting it Right." He's now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

And Lawrence Wright, a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine, and author of "The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11," which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction.

And, Lawrence Wright, let's start with you. A lot of the details from the report aren't yet known, but some of the key findings have come out. How would you assess the strength of al-Qaida today? Would you agree with the thrust of the report that it's returned to its pre-9/11 strength?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT, The New Yorker Magazine: It's a different organization. It's certainly more widespread. And their intentions are just as great as they were in the past.

It's not the same organization, not the same hierarchical, top-down organization with the ease of training and so on that it had in the past. So if you were to say in the past it was streamlined, it was able to operate freely, it was able to create a unitary command, no, they don't have that now. But it's much more widespread and many other followers after it. So in that sense, it may be more dangerous than it has been in the past.

Where al-Qaida is gaining strength

Daniel Benjamin
Former National Security Council Staff
The head of intelligence analysis at CIA yesterday said they're seeing more training, more money, more communications. So that is indicative that the threat is growing.

RAY SUAREZ: Daniel Benjamin, what do you make of the findings?

DANIEL BENJAMIN, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution: Well, this is consistent with what government officials actually have been saying for a while. John Negroponte, before he left office as the director of national intelligence, said much the same thing to the Congress.

There's no question that al-Qaida in the badlands in Pakistan has been gaining strength. The head of intelligence analysis at CIA yesterday said they're seeing more training, more money, more communications. So that is indicative that the threat is growing.

And to follow on what Larry was saying, there's no question that, as a movement, as a global movement, it is gaining strength. It's very hard to peg where it is compared to 9/11. But the threat is very real, and it appears to be growing.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Lawrence Wright, you stressed the difference between al-Qaida then and now. Is it the very act of fighting back against the organization that's caused it to change in these ways that you've been talking about?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: The act that really revivified al-Qaida was the invasion of Iraq, not the war on terror. The war on terror was really over in November, December 2001, when American and coalition troops invaded Afghanistan, swept aside the Taliban, and pummeled al-Qaida. Eighty percent of its members were captured or killed, according to their own documents.

We'll never have al-Qaida all in one place like we did then. And for about three years, that organization was in a kind of zombie state, but the invasion of Iraq gave it a cause, gave it a focus, and now, unfortunately, has given it a new country to train in.

RAY SUAREZ: So what happened? You say the invasion of Iraq, but exactly how did that help blow new life into the nostrils of what you describe as a moribund organization?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Well, for one thing, there was already a group in Iraq led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which was not formally affiliated with al-Qaida at the time, but they made application to join, as have other organizations, like the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which was in Algeria and has become a formal al-Qaida affiliate.

And this manner, what were previously nationalist groups are beginning to all join together under this internationalist jihadi banner. And that's the movement that's spreading all around the world right now.

"We didn't close the deal"

Lawrence Wright
The New Yorker
Unfortunately, the federally administrated tribal areas are now just wide open sanctuary for al-Qaida and the Taliban.

RAY SUAREZ: So, Dan Benjamin, when you heard the president say -- he just rejected flatly that assertion that al-Qaida is on its way to being stronger today than it was before the September 11th attacks, and he said that it's weaker today because of American countermeasures.

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, there's no question that some of the things we've done have succeeded, and particularly the period that Larry Wright was talking about, at the end of 2001, 2002, was very important. But the fact is that we didn't close the deal, and we pulled our best special operations forces out of that theater, put them in the Persian Gulf. We diminished the intelligence resources devoted to the fight then, and we've paid a big price.

We've been distracted by Iraq, again, and we've also deferred a great deal to President Musharraf, and we've been fairly hands off, especially in the federally administered tribal areas. At the same time, it is absolutely true that Iraq, as an earlier intelligence community document that was much publicized last year said, Iraq has turbocharged the movement.

And Iraq really has, for many Muslims around the world, validated bin Laden's argument that the United States is a predatory power. No matter how positive, no matter how benign we thought our own motivations were, we're an occupying power there, and that has really given enormous fuel to the jihadist movement.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Lawrence Wright, you heard Daniel Benjamin mention President Musharraf. One of the findings in the new counterterrorism analysis is that the compact with the tribes in Waziristan, north and south, is one of the contributing factors to that reorganization, that reconstitution. Does that sound logical to you?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Yes. Unfortunately, the federally administrated tribal areas are now just wide open sanctuary for al-Qaida and the Taliban. And they've been waging war on some of the tribal leaders that were resisting them.

So we're at a crossroads with Pakistan. Pakistan itself is at a crossroads. I think that we'll be sitting, you know, elections in Pakistan. The supreme court does not want Musharraf to run again as the head of the army. It's going to have to decide if it's going to be a military dictatorship or a democracy.

And there are a lot of things that are really at stake in Pakistan. Whether it's as unstable as it advertises itself to be is something that we'll find out, but it paralyzes the American intelligence and policy community, because they're afraid to do anything in Pakistan for fear of destabilizing what is a very repressive regime.

Arms of al-Qaida

Daniel Benjamin
Former National Security Council Staff
Al-Qaida is not an organization that you can put on a standard chart the way we would with, you know, General Motors. It is many different things.

RAY SUAREZ: Can you still even talk about Pakistan as a unitary place, Daniel Benjamin? Or are there really Pakistans at this point, as far as American relations are concerned and the hunt for al-Qaida?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well there is one Pakistan, and it is ruled from Islamabad. The problem is that there is part of the territory that has really never been subdued, and that is the part on the Afghan border, and that is a big problem.

The Pakistani army was getting pounded there by the tribal fighting forces. And that's part of the reason they made this compact. They don't really feel the war on terror is their war, and they were tired of taking the casualties they were.

There is a serious rebellion in Baluchistan. There's serious problems in the frontier province. Pakistan is in fairly dire straits. You have an Islamist movement; at the same time, you have a democracy movement. So it's a very troubled country, and that certainly will affect how we do in the fight against terrorism in the years to come. But for the moment, it's still a unitary state, and we better hope it remains that way.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Lawrence Wright, you've both been talking about change and how the organization has morphed over these years since the attack on the United States. In 2007, what is al-Qaida, at long last? How would we describe it best today?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Well, al-Qaida is several things. One, most obvious, it's a movement that captures the imagination of untold numbered of disaffected young Muslims all over the globe.

Within that movement, there are al-Qaida wannabes, as maybe have seen recently in the U.K. But then there are al-Qaida affiliates, like in North Africa, in Iraq, and in Pakistan, in Saudi Arabia, that are formally a part of al-Qaida.

And then there's al-Qaida the mother ship, which is still alive, very much so, probably in the federally administered tribal areas in Pakistan. So it's many different things, but the fact that it's multiplied in all of these different ways is what's so worrisome.

RAY SUAREZ: Daniel Benjamin, anything to add to that?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: No, I completely agree: al-Qaida is not an organization that you can put on a standard chart the way we would with, you know, General Motors. It is many different things. What it is, I think, above all is an ideology that is gaining ground.

And there are different activities that are feeding off each other. You know, every time intelligence services or police take down a cell in Europe, they find a cache of videos of what's going on in Iraq, of al-Qaida killing Americans. So there are all these different feedback mechanisms, and the consequence is that the overall movement is gaining strength and growing.

RAY SUAREZ: Daniel Benjamin, Lawrence Wright, gentlemen, thank you both.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: It's a pleasure.