Omar bin Laden, the fourth son of the Al Qaeda leader, cuts a striking figure. In one photo, he stares out from beneath an Adidas baseball cap, his beard closely trimmed--an entirely different look from his father's seventh-century aesthetic. He wears jeans and sits next to his much older wife, a pale-faced British woman with pig tails, whom he divorced a mere five months into their marriage. While his father would not approve of his lifestyle choices, few men know the terrorist mastermind so well. When the Sudanese government exiled bin Laden in 1996, Omar was part of the small contingent that flew in a jet to Al Qaeda's Afghan sanctuary. He spent nearly five years living in the notorious training camps that bin Laden assembled.
But, between his departure from Sudan and his marriage, something happened to Omar: He turned against his father. I caught a small glimpse of his anger when I spoke with Huthaifa Azzam, the son of Palestinian cleric Abdullah Azzam, one of Osama bin Laden's most important mentors. In 2003, Huthaifa had accompanied Omar on a Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, where they spent four days together living in the same tent, performing religious observances, and talking about life in Afghanistan. Omar heaped abuse on his father for attacking the United States. "It's craziness. ... Those guys are dummies," he said. "They have destroyed everything, and for nothing. What did we get from September 11?" In fact, these attacks had driven a permanent wedge between father and son. Soon after planes struck New York and Washington, Omar left Afghanistan in disgust. And, in the years since, he appears to have had no contact with his father.
When Omar fled the Al Qaeda training camps, the organization was in disarray. A 2002 letter written by an Al Qaeda member--and addressed to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the operational commander of the September 11 attacks--gives a sense of just how demoralized the group was:
Consider all the fatal and successive disasters that have afflicted us during a period of no more than six months. Those observing our affairs wonder what has happened to us. Today we are experiencing one setback after another and have gone from misfortune to disaster. ... I say today we must completely halt all external actions until we sit down and consider the disaster we caused. The East Asia, Europe, America, Horn of Africa, Yemen, Gulf, and Morocco [terrorist] groups have fallen, and Pakistan has almost been drowned in one push.
Al Qaeda's cadres were right to be dispirited. The United States appeared to have soundly defeated the terrorist organization. As Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown professor and one of the world's leading authorities on terrorism, told me, "It's difficult to recall the extent to which it was believed that a decisive corner had been turned in 2002 as a result of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. We believed not simply that Al Qaeda was on the run, but that it had been smashed to bits."
But that was five very long years ago--five years during which Al Qaeda has not only survived but also managed to rebuild at an astonishing clip. The group's leadership has reconstituted itself and now operates rather comfortably along the largely lawless Afghan-Pakistan border. Last year, it came close to downing ten U.S. airplanes using liquid explosives--an attack that would have rivaled September 11 in magnitude. Al Qaeda has continually massacred Iraqi civilians over the past three years and has managed to keep the country locked in the grip of sectarian violence. Swathes of Afghanistan are in danger of reverting to Islamist control. The largest Algerian terrorist group announced last year that it was putting itself under Al Qaeda's umbrella--and has subsequently launched a series of attacks in North Africa against Western targets. Britain's domestic intelligence chief said last November that 30 terrorist plots were underway in her country--some of which would involve "mass-casualty suicide attacks"--and that Al Qaeda's Pakistan-based leadership was giving direction to its British followers "on an extensive and growing scale." Last month, Al Qaedalinked militants who had trained at camps in Pakistan were arrested in Germany, where a prosecutor said they had acquired enough chemicals for what would have been "massive bomb attacks" targeting Americans in the country. In a small but telling sign of its restored confidence, Al Qaeda's production arm has cranked out a record number of videos and audiotapes this year. To top things off, according to Hoffman, the group's "determination to strike the United States from abroad again remains undiminished." And it may be getting closer to doing just that: A recent National Intelligence Estimate noted that Al Qaeda "has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability."
America's most formidable foe--once practically dead-- is back. This is one of the most historically significant legacies of President Bush. At nearly every turn, he has made the wrong strategic choices in battling Al Qaeda. To understand the terror network's resurgence--and its continued ability to harm us--we need to reexamine all the ways in which the administration has failed to crush it.
Al Qaeda has always had a fundamentally apocalyptic mindset, but never more so than in December 2001. In the snowy mountains of eastern Afghanistan, a place with the cinematic name of Tora Bora, bin Laden and his men prepared for their final stand. They had watched the United States evict the Taliban from power while incurring only small numbers of casualties, and, now, they were on the run. As bin Laden would later recount in a 2003 video, the 300 Al Qaeda militants assembled at the mountain hideaway dug 100 trenches over an area of one square mile in preparation for the battle to come. Ayman Saeed Abdullah Batarfi, a Yemeni doctor now being held at Guantánamo, painted for American interrogators a scene of desperation. "I was out of medicine and I had a lot of casualties," Batarfi recalled. "I did a hand amputation by a knife, and I did a finger amputation with scissors."
I got a sense for just how pessimistic Al Qaeda's leadership must have felt on my visits to Tora Bora in the years following the battle. The complex of mountains dotted with caves lies a three-hour drive up a narrow mud-and-stone road from the eastern Afghanistan city of Jalalabad. You can still find bin Laden's shattered two-room mud house and a destroyed crude swimming pool. In nearby fields, I saw enormous craters where 1,500-pound daisy-cutters had left their mark. "Day and night," bin Laden would later recall, "American forces were bombing us by smart bombs that weigh thousands of pounds and bombs that penetrate caves."
In fact, those bombs very nearly killed him. Late in the night of December 9, according to Abu Jaafar Al Kuwaiti, an Al Qaeda operative who was at Tora Bora, U.S. forces hit the bunker where bin Laden had been staying with "massive and terrorizing explosions." Al Qaeda's leader, however, was 200 meters away, having moved just two nights before.
Bin Laden was clearly in trouble, and he knew it. At some point during the battle, he would sustain a serious wound to his left shoulder. And, on December 14, around the time he finally fled Tora Bora, he wrote a final testament that included this bleak message to his offspring: "As to my children, forgive me because I have given you only a little of my time since I answered the jihad call. I have chosen a road fraught with dangers and for this sake suffered from hardships, embitterment, betrayal, and treachery. I advise you not to work with Al Qaeda."
Yet, even as bin Laden contemplated his own death and Al Qaeda seemed on the verge of defeat, Gary Berntsen, then commander of CIA operations in eastern Afghanistan, was worried. A gung-ho officer who speaks Dari, the local Afghan language, Berntsen realized that Afghan soldiers were likely not up to the task of taking on Al Qaeda's hard core at Tora Bora. In the first days of December, he had requested a battalion of Rangers--that is, between 600 and 800 soldiers--to assault the complex of caves where bin Laden and his lieutenants were believed to be hiding and to block their escape routes. That request was denied by the Pentagon, for reasons that have never been fully clarified. In the end, there were probably more journalists at Tora Bora than the 50 or so Delta and Green Beret soldiers who participated in the fight.
And so the task of encircling the area was passed off to local warlords--one of whom declared a truce with Al Qaeda at a critical moment in the battle, allowing members of the group to slip away. Muhammad Musa, a massively built, laconic Afghan commander who led several hundred of his soldiers on the Tora Bora front line, told me, "There were six American soldiers with us, U.S. Special Forces. They coordinated the air strikes. My personal view is if they had blocked the way out to Pakistan, Al Qaeda would not have had a way to escape." The strategy of relying on local proxies--a tactic that had served America so well in overthrowing the Taliban--proved disastrous at the Afghan campaign's crucial moment.
Everyone knows what happened next: Al Qaeda's leaders fled into the tribal areas of western Pakistan, where they began the long process of rebuilding their devastated organization. That process has gone far better than they could possibly have imagined as they slipped out of Afghanistan in late 2001 to the hum of American munitions blowing apart their last refuge in a country that had once, more or less, been theirs.
Over the subsequent six years, administration officials and their defenders have offered two arguments to minimize the American failure at Tora Bora. The first is that we don't really know whether bin Laden himself was there. In fact, there is a great deal of evidence that Al Qaeda's leader was at the mountain holdout in December 2001. Batarfi, the Yemeni doctor, has said he saw him there. Moreover, Berntsen told me that CIA officers at Tora Bora who were monitoring local radio transmissions overheard bin Laden talking during the battle. And an American military officer who was on the battlefield confirmed that American "collectors" scanning for radio signals in the area heard Al Qaeda's leader speak several times between December 7 and December 14.
The second argument is that, even if we did allow bin Laden and Al Qaeda's other top commanders to escape, they are no longer all that crucial to the organization's operations. And it is true that, in recent years, Al Qaeda has become more decentralized than it was before September 11. But, while they may no longer be ordering attacks over the phone, no one should doubt the continuing ability of bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman Al Zawahiri--who also escaped from Tora Bora--to set Al Qaeda's worldwide agenda. Since December 2001, their videos and audiotapes have reached hundreds of millions of people worldwide, many carrying specific instructions for militant cells. For instance, in September 2003, Zawahiri denounced Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf for supporting the U.S. campaign against Al Qaeda. Within three months, militants had launched two assassination attempts against Musharraf. In October 2003, bin Laden called for action against Spain because of its troop presence in Iraq. Five months later, terrorists killed 191 commuters in Madrid. In December 2004, bin Laden called for attacks against Saudi oil facilities. Fourteen months later, Al Qaeda attacked a plant in Abqaiq, one of the most important oil production facilities in the world.
In short, allowing Al Qaeda's leadership to escape from Tora Bora and fight another day has proven to be a costly mistake. And it was only the first of many.
The Bush team's next major misstep came as it set about rebuilding the country it had just conquered--or rather, for the most part, didn't. Afghanistan should have been a demonstration project of American resolve and American compassion: a signal to our enemies that, once evicted from their sanctuaries, they would never be allowed back; and a signal to our friends that democracy could flourish in a land where militant Islamists had once reigned. But, as Lieutenant General David Barno, the commanding general in Afghanistan in 2003, has dryly noted, "Nation-building' was explicitly not part of the formula." According to a study by rand, "Afghanistan has received the least amount of resources out of any major American-led, nation-building operation over the last 60 years." Specifically, the initial deployment of American soldiers to Afghanistan following the fall of the Taliban was the smallest per capita peacekeeping force of any U.S. post-conflict deployment since World War II--some 6,000 soldiers in a country that is both 50 percent bigger geographically than Iraq and more populous too. Moreover, based apparently on its aversion to allies, the administration blocked any non-U.S. troops from deploying outside Kabul for the first two years of the occupation. Not only were we unwilling to police Afghanistan; we weren't going to let anyone else do it, either. The absence of Western boots on the ground meant that responsibility for security was often entrusted to local warlords--whose increased clout, in turn, slowed the formation of a real Afghan national army.
You get what you pay for, and, today, Afghanistan resembles nothing so much as Iraq in the fall of 2003, when the descent into chaos began. In 2006, IED attacks doubled, assaults on international forces tripled, and suicide bombings quintupled. In fact, last year saw the highest number of U.S. military and nato casualties since the fall of the Taliban. And 2007 is shaping up to be even worse, with suicide bombings up 69 percent from last year. What's more, Afghanistan is now supplying almost all of the world's heroin. In Helmand and Kandahar--provinces in southern Afghanistan--more than a quarter of the population supports the Tali- ban, according to a poll released in March. Just one in ten Afghans has access to electricity, while the capital, Kabul, only has electricity for a few hours a day. Amer- ica's neglect of Afghanistan since 2001 can only be described as an enormous missed opportunity.
And the reason for that missed opportunity was simple: By the time the Taliban fell, the Bush administration's attention was already elsewhere. According to Bob Woodward's book Plan of Attack, in late November 2001--even before the battle of Tora Bora--Bush asked the Pentagon to revamp its 800-page Iraq war plan. General Tommy Franks "was incredulous," Woodward writes. "They were in the midst of one war in Afghanistan and now they wanted detailed planning for another in Iraq? Goddamn,' Franks said, what the fuck are they talking about?'" In the months and years to come, the Iraq war would divert important resources, military and otherwise, from Afghanistan--missile-firing Predators, satellites, and key units such as the 5th Special Forces Group, which specializes in the Middle East and was pulled out of the country in the spring of 2002. It is heartbreaking, today, to imagine what might have been accomplished if the money spent on the Iraq war--hundreds of billions of dollars so far--had been plunged into creating a model state in Afghanistan.
The removal of Saddam Hussein would prove to be a boon to Al Qaeda--creating a base for the terrorist organization where none had existed before, energizing jihadists around the word, and confirming for many Muslims bin Laden's contention that the United States was at war with Islam. "Al Qaeda in Iraq" was founded in 2004 by Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, who had previously run a Jordanian terrorist outfit that was somewhat competitive with Al Qaeda. His group's subsequent attacks against Shia shrines, clerics, and civilians were the critical factor in Iraq's slide into civil war. Suicide attacks--the vast majority perpetrated by Al Qaeda--have killed more than 10,000 Iraqi civilians, according to Mohammed Hafez of the University of Missouri, whose 2007 book, Suicide Bombings in Iraq, is the authoritative study of the phenomenon.
To be sure, the administration has been able to claim some victories over Al Qaeda in Iraq during the last year. When it controlled the western province of Anbar in 2006, Al Qaeda imposed Taliban-style measures and punishments on the population and killed tribal leaders it considered rivals. This allowed U.S. forces an opening to begin turning Sunni tribal leaders against Al Qaeda--and, eventually, the group was run out of the province. The Anbar model of recruiting Sunni leaders to fight Al Qaeda is now being applied in other parts of the country with some success. But Al Qaeda in Iraq is hardly down for the count. According to the U.S. military, more than 4,000 Iraqis were killed or injured by Al Qaeda suicide attacks in the first half of 2007.
The fallout from the rise of Al Qaeda in Iraq has been felt far outside the country. Bush defenders have claimed that Iraq will reduce terrorism by drawing jihadists to the country like moths to a flame--where they can be killed or captured before doing damage in the West. But this assertion is unconvincing, because it incorrectly assumes that the world contains a finite number of jihadists. In fact, the pool of potential terrorists has expanded in the past four years. As the administration's own 2006 National Intelligence Estimate explains, "[T]he Iraq War has become the cause celebre' for jihadists ... and is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives." To test that thesis empirically, Paul Cruickshank of New York University and I compared the period after September 11 through the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 with the period from March 2003 through September 2006. Using numbers from the authoritative rand terrorism database, we found that the rate of deadly attacks by jihadists had increased sevenfold since the invasion. And, even excluding terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan, fatal attacks by jihadists in the rest of the world have increased by more than one-third since March 2003.
This was not the way things were supposed to unfold. Indeed, not so long ago, the jihadists themselves believed that the United States was eliminating terrorists at an impressive rate. In 2004, Abu Musab Al Suri, a key Al Qaeda ideologue, released a book that summarized the damage sustained by his fellow militants in the immediate aftermath of September 11:
America destroyed the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan, which became the refuge for the mujahideen. They killed hundreds of mujahideen who defended the Emirate. Then America captured more than six hundred Jihadists from different Arab countries and Pakistan jailed them. The Jihad movement rose to glory in the '60s, and continued through the '70s and '80s, and resulted in the rise of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, but was destroyed after 9/11.
But, since then, Iraq and Afghanistan have become locked in a self-reinforcing downward spiral--one that has handed the momentum in the war on terrorism back to our adversaries. After Saddam's fall, Iraq became a new headquarters of sorts for jihadists. Meanwhile, with the Bush administration's attention elsewhere, Al Qaeda took the opportunity to reassert itself along the Afghan- Pakistan border. And jihadists began to travel between the two regions, worsening the situation in both. As Art Keller, a CIA officer stationed in the tribal areas of Pakistan in 2006, told me, "People are going from the Afghan-Pakistan border to Iraq to learn the tactics and then come back. Seems like the reverse of the way the war on terror was supposed to work."
In September 2006, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf made one of his periodic visits to the United States. He was here, in part, to promote his grandiose memoir, In the Line of Fire, by sitting for an interview with NBC's "Today" show and bantering on Comedy Central with Jon Stewart. (Stewart obsequiously served the dictator tea and pronounced the book "remarkable.") But Musharraf wasn't just looking to drive up his Amazon ranking. As always, he was here partly to have his despotic ring kissed by Bush. And the president did not disappoint. At a joint Washington press conference, after telling Musharraf, "I admire your courage and leadership," Bush went on to address a deal that the Pakistani government had recently signed with militants in the tribal area of North Waziristan on the Afghan border. Bush assured the assembled reporters that his Pakistani counterpart knew what he was doing: "When President Musharraf said the peace deal is intended to reject Talibanization of the people and there will not be Taliban, there will not be Al Qaeda--I believe him."
Unfortunately, several months after that peace deal was signed, Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, the top American commander in Afghanistan, disclosed that cross-border attacks from that area of Pakistan were 200 percent higher than the year before; and a U.S. military intelligence officer told the Associated Press that, following the deal, attacks in the border area had ballooned by 300 percent. Shortly thereafter, Lieutenant General Michael Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Intelligence Committee, "Pakistan's border with Afghanistan remains a haven for Al Qaeda's leadership and other extremists. In a September accord with the Pakistan government, North Waziristan tribes agreed to curtail attacks into Afghanistan, cease attacks on Pakistani forces, and expel foreign fighters. However, the tribes have not abided by most terms of the agreement." Finally, after months of denial, administration officials were forced this summer to concede the obvious: that Musharraf's policy of appeasing the militants had been a failure.
And that, in a nutshell, characterizes Bush's approach to Pakistan: showering Musharraf with affection and largesse, only to receive progressively less in return with each passing year. America has handed $10 billion to the Pakistani government since September 11. Yet the Taliban and Al Qaeda remain headquartered in Pakistan. A U.S. military official in Afghanistan with access to intelligence information told me this spring that Taliban leader Mullah Omar "is still in Quetta," a major Pakistani city. And a Western official based in Pakistan told me that "target folders" about the locations of high-value Taliban and Al Qaeda targets were provided by the U.S. government to Pakistan in late 2006--but never acted upon. Moreover, the Bush administration has, on at least one occasion, refused to do what Pakistan will not: This July, The New York Times reported that Donald Rumsfeld nixed a proposed 2005 attack on a meeting of Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan--a meeting thought to include Zawahiri--in part because the operation, which would have involved several hundred special forces and CIA personnel, could have destabilized Musharraf.
In the past few years, Musharraf has convinced the Bush administration that he is the only person who can prevent radical Islamists from taking over his country and getting their hands on Pakistan's nuclear weapons. But this is self-serving fiction. A September poll found that Pakistan's coalition of militant Islamist parties, known as the MMA, would receive only 3.5 percent of the vote in a contested election. (Last week, Musharraf coasted to reelection, as opposition parties boycotted the vote.) Having been duped by the myth of Musharraf's indispensability, Bush officials are now overly reluctant to push the Pakistani leader too hard on confronting Al Qaeda--for fear he will be seen as an American stooge, eventually toppled, and replaced by someone far worse.
This situation has been compounded by the fact that, for much of the past six years, few American spies were operating in Pakistan's tribal areas. Keller, the CIA officer, ran a spy network in one of the tribal regions in early 2006. While he noted that more agents have since been deployed, he said that, at the time, he was one of only a "handful" of CIA officers doing this kind of work in the seven tribal regions where Al Qaeda and Taliban militants are concentrat- ed. "A great deal of the resources have gone to Iraq," he explained. "I don't think it's appreciated that the CIA is not really a very large organization in terms of field personnel."
Small wonder, then, that Al Qaeda continues to enjoy a safe haven in Pakistan's tribal areas. Or that militants linked to Al Qaeda have killed 200 Pakistani soldiers in suicide attacks during the past two months. Six years after September 11, the Bush administration has yet to receive the cooperation it needs from Pakistan. To borrow a word from Jon Stewart, this is "remarkable."
in the early 1990s, a former sergeant in the U.S. Army who went by the name "Jeff" began taking photos in Nairobi. Jeff, it turned out, had traded in his job with Uncle Sam for a position with Al Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden had asked him to scout potential targets for an attack in Kenya. Among the sites he studied was the U.S. Embassy. Eventually, having drawn diagrams and compiled a report, Jeff decamped for Khartoum, where he presented his findings to Al Qaeda's top brass. "Bin Laden looked at the picture of the American Embassy," Jeff would later recall, "and pointed to where a truck could go as a suicide bomber."
Jeff's report would serve as the basis for Al Qaeda's bombing of the U.S. Embassy in August 1998, an attack that killed more than 200 people. For much of the '90s, Jeff had lived a double life: shuttling in and out of Sudan and Afghanistan as an Al Qaeda operative while also working as a computer network specialist in California. One month after the 1998 bombing, Jeff--whose real name is Ali Mohamed--was arrested by the FBI in New York. Prior to September 11, he was the highest-level Al Qaeda operative in U.S. custody.
In time, Mohamed would prove to be a treasure trove of information about Al Qaeda. Facing the possibility of life in prison without parole, he entered a guilty plea and, as part of the bargain, detailed bin Laden's personal involvement in the 1998 embassy bombings as well as Al Qaeda's dealings with Hezbollah in the mid-'90s. He also agreed to cooperate in prosecutions of other terrorists. None of this was easy, of course. Daniel Coleman, a former FBI special agent who dealt with Mohamed and is regarded as one of the nation's leading authorities on Al Qaeda, recalls that "it took two years to get him to the point where we could safely say that he was reliable and not leading us on." But, eventually, he did--and physical coercion was not involved. "There is no need to use anything else other than the full legal scope and power of the justice system," Coleman says of his approach to interrogations. "To go outside of that is completely unnecessary."
Indeed, Coleman thinks the Bush administration's treatment of captured terrorists--holding so many outside the traditional justice system at Guantánamo while authorizing interrogation techniques that some observers would consider torture--has been largely a bust. He told me that most of the information he saw coming out of Guantánamo until his retirement in 2004 "was of no particular value." And Coleman believes that, unlike the intelligence the FBI extracted from Ali Mohamed, the information provided by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed--the September 11 operational commander who is reported to have been subjected to waterboarding while in U.S. custody--is "suspect" and "not useful in a court of law."
Coleman isn't the only one who feels this way. Michael Rolince, who, from 2002 to 2005, was special agent in charge of counterterrorism in the FBI's Washington field office--which handles not just threats to the capital region, but also many overseas cases--told me, "I don't recall any information that was relevant [to my office] coming out of Guantánamo." He also points out that "torture and coercion gets you, in the vast majority of cases, wrong information that takes you off on wild goose chases." And Brad Garrett, a former FBI agent who obtained uncoerced confessions from two notorious terrorists--Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and Mir Aimal Kansi, killer of two CIA employees outside agency headquarters that same year--told me that "coercive interrogation techniques have proven to be ineffective in producing reliable intelligence."
But Bush's decision to operate outside the boundaries of U.S. and international law has been worse than simply unnecessary; it has also actively harmed American interests. For one thing, by refusing to bring terrorists to trial, we have passed up valuable opportunities to dispassionately present evidence of Al Qaeda's bloodlust to the world at large. (Testimony in the 2001 embassy-bombing trial established for the first time that Al Qaeda had tried to acquire highly enriched uranium in the mid-'90s--which had the effect of publicly underscoring the group's plans for mass murder.) Moreover, Bush's legal approach to the war on terrorism has torpedoed America's good reputation around the world. In a BBC survey released this year, of the more than 26,000 people polled in 25 different countries, seven out of ten disapproved of the treatment of Guantánamo inmates, while half thought the United States plays a mostly negative role in the world. The numbers are far worse in Muslim countries--including democratic ones that should be natural allies. According to a recent Pew poll, America's favorability rating stands at 9 percent in Turkey (down from 52 percent before September 11) and 29 percent in Indonesia (down from 75 percent before September 11).
If, as the president explained in a speech last year, the United States is today engaged "in the decisive ideological struggle of the twenty-first century," right now we are on the losing side of the battle of ideas. Garrett, for one, understands why. "Interrogation techniques that violate human decency ... can weaken others supporting us in fighting terrorism and can actually create more enemies," he says. In other words, Bush's legal strategy in the war on terrorism has been counterproductive. And the consequences for our safety are real.
Yet, for all Bush's obvious missteps, there is one inarguable bright spot in the war on terrorism, and it is no small matter: Since September 11, America has not been attacked again. Bush, unsurprisingly, has not been shy about taking credit for this. Al Qaeda, he explained last year, has failed to strike the United States a second time "because our government has changed its policies--and given our military, intelligence, and law enforcement personnel the tools they need to fight this enemy and protect our people." And a fair-minded observer might conceivably ask: Is it possible that, despite all he has done wrong, Bush has somehow managed to get the single most important thing right?
There is no doubt that some of the measures Bush has taken since September 11 have made us safer. First, the much- maligned Patriot Act accomplished something quite important, which was to break down the legal "wall" that had been blocking the flow of information between the CIA and the FBI. Second, the creation of the National Counter Terrorism Center has led to various agencies sharing data and analyzing it under one roof. (Although it should be noted that the center was the brainchild of the 9/11 Commission--whose establishment the Bush administration fought tooth-and-nail for more than a year.) Third, it is now much harder for terrorists to get into the country thanks to no-fly lists. Finally, cooperation between U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies has generally been strong since September 11. For instance, Al Qaeda's plot to bring down ten U.S. airliners was disrupted last year by the joint work of U.S., British, and Pakistani intelligence services.
That said, the key reason we have not been attacked again has nothing to do with Bush. In sharp contrast to Muslim populations in European countries like Britain--where Al Qaeda has found recruits for multiple terrorist plots--the American Muslim community has overwhelmingly rejected the ideological virus of radical Islam. The American Dream has generally worked well for Muslims in the United States, who are both better-educated and wealthier than the average American. There is no analogous "British Dream," "French Dream," or, needless to say, "EU Dream." None of this is to say that the limited job opportunities and segregation that are the lot of many European Muslims are the causes of terrorism in Europe--only that such conditions create favorable circumstances in which Al Qaeda can recruit. And, in the absence of those conditions on this side of the Atlantic, radical Islam has never gained much of a foothold--largely sparing us the scourge of homegrown terrorism. This is fundamentally a testament to American pluralism, not the Bush administration.
Consider the jihadists who have plotted or carried out the worst attacks here in recent years. Yousef flew in from Pakistan for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian, tried to drive in from Canada on his way to bomb LAX airport in 1999. The September 11 hijackers all traveled to the United States specifically for the attacks. Of course, there are almost certainly homegrown Al Qaeda wannabes in America. But, without the Al Qaeda infrastructure that exists in Europe, these would-be terrorists are unlikely to have the training or capabilities to pull off mass-casualty attacks.
For America, then, the threat does not come from within, but rather from abroad. And, while Bush can take some credit for measures that have made it harder for foreign terrorists to get into the country, he must take the blame for the fact that his policies--in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Guantánamo--have greatly increased the pool of jihadist terrorists around the world. Since September 11, we have largely managed to block these jihadists from entering. But no country, no matter how vigilant, no matter how powerful, can hope to lock out every last member of an ever-multiplying, ever-more-sophisticated gang of trained killers forever. Which is why our best bet--and maybe our only hope--in the war on terrorism is to stop Al Qaeda long before it gets here.
It has been six years since we were a few hundred maddening meters from killing Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora--and, perhaps, a few hundred soldiers from finishing off his top lieutenants as well. Tora Bora seems very far away from New York, and, in many ways, it is. But the disastrous chain of events that began there in December 2001--a bungled bid to snag bin Laden, followed by a war in Iraq that gave new life to Al Qaeda, accompanied by a virtual abandonment of Afghanistan, compounded by a naïve approach toward Pakistan, topped off by a set of legal policies that has made America the bane of world opinion--may yet end in the streets of Manhattan. Indeed, if the last few years have taught us anything, it is that the steps from Tora Bora to Waziristan to Anbar to London--to beyond?--are not so large at all.
And so it bears mentioning that, the last few times I visited Jalalabad, my Afghan friends warned me strongly against traveling to Tora Bora. The area, they explained, had been taken over by jihadists. They were right: In August, American soldiers went into Tora Bora to take on hundreds of Taliban and Al Qaeda militants holed up there.
Meanwhile, reports surfaced that perhaps bin Laden had been in the area. Alas, we didn't get him this time either.
Peter Bergen is a Schwartz senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of The Osama bin Laden I Know.
By Peter Bergen