Jul 13, 2007

Mistakes that Led to al Qaeda Resurgence

PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST (voice-over): Mistake number one, a big one, letting Osama bin Laden go. U.S. special forces had bin Laden cornered in the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan in late 2001. The CIA commander on the scene asked for more forces to catch al Qaeda's leader, but was turned down. And bin Laden escaped.

Mistake number two, getting distracted. The United States ousted the Taliban and chased al Qaeda into Pakistan. But then it shifted its focus and manpower to Iraq, leaving just a handful of U.S. operatives to catch bin Laden.

Art Keller hunted al Qaeda in Pakistan just last year, when he was with the CIA.

ART KELLER, FORMER CIA OFFICER: To use a medical analogy, it's like quitting a course of antibiotics too soon. You just leave a reservoir of infection even stronger to come back after you.

BERGEN: There are now more Americans on the ground in Pakistan. But the damage has already been done.

Mistake number three, misunderstanding the enemy. The Bush administration hoped that Iraq would draw terrorists to one place, making them easier to kill, the so-called flypaper theory. But the opposite happened. Iraq has strengthened al Qaeda. It's now a training ground for terrorists from around the world.

KELLER: People are going there to learn the tactics, and then come back.

BERGEN (on camera): A certain irony?

KELLER: Yes, it is. It seems like the reverse of the way the war on terror was supposed to work.

BERGEN (voice-over): Take suicide bombings, for example. Once unheard of in Afghanistan, now they happen at least once a week.

I met a failed suicide bomber in Kabul, who survived when his vest didn't blow up.

(on camera): Do you still hope to be a shahid, somebody who martyrs himself, when you get out of here?


BERGEN: Of course.

(voice-over): That's the mistake number four, the so-called Iraq effect, letting al Qaeda spread its ideas and methods around the world. It was evident most recently in the London and Glasgow botched terror attacks, where an Iraqi doctor is alleged to have been involved in a plot that could have killed hundreds.

Another mistake, to some intelligence officials, protecting an ally, rather than striking al Qaeda. "The New York Times" reports that Washington nixed an attack on al Qaeda's leaders in Pakistan in 2005, for fear that it would destabilize Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf.

Some take comfort in the fact that al Qaeda still hasn't struck America again. But others say that's a false comfort.

KELLER: I think that the fact that we haven't been hit doesn't really tell us anything other than that there's a long planning cycle for terrorist acts.

BRUCE HOFFMAN, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: They have pinned their hopes on carrying out another spectacular operation, if not exactly like 9/11, at least along the same lines. And that's what they believe will once again catapult them back into prominence, as the undisputed head of the global jihadi movement.

BERGEN: Al Qaeda is patient, planning for maximum impact, looking for a way to top 9/11, taking its time. And the U.S. has given them exactly that, time. Peter Bergen, CNN, Washington.