Taking Stock of Al-Qaida

President Bush denies that al-Qaida is as strong now as it was before Sept. 11, 2001, as a recent report suggests. What exactly did the intelligence community say about al-Qaida's strength, and what exactly is al-Qaida today? Melissa Block talks with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This morning, when President Bush was sounding ready to wrap up his news conference…

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Thank you all for your time. I loved being here at this new building.

BLOCK: …a reporter shouted one last question.

Unidentified Woman: What about the agency's al-Qaida intelligence report, please?

Pres. BUSH: What was that?

BLOCK: That question was not on Iraq, but on a new intelligence assessment that concludes al-Qaida is now stronger than it's been in years. President Bush tried to clarify that.

Pres. BUSH: There is a perception in the coverage that al-Qaida may be as stronger today as they were prior to September the 11th. That's just simply not the case. I think the report will say, since 2001, not prior to September the 11th, 2001.

BLOCK: Well, with us here in the studio is NPR's intelligence correspondent Mary Louise Kelly. And Mary Louise, what's the distinction there that the president is making?

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Well, I think what he's trying to do is to counter any suggestion that al-Qaida is, today, a strong as it was before 9/11 because that would suggest that these past six years of the war on terror have not achieved very much. Here's what the report actually says, this new intelligence assessment, and this is based on reporting I've done. It is titled "Al-Qaida Better Positioned to Strike the West." And what it concludes apparently is that al-Qaida is still weaker than it was on 9/11 or just prior to 9/11, but that it is stronger than it has been in years. And this is in large part because the core leadership - this is bin Laden and Zawahiri - these original leaders have been able to dig in and rebuild in their sanctuary, where there believed to be in northwest Pakistan. We heard testimony yesterday from CIA and their top analyst is saying that among that group of original leaders, they see more money flowing in. They're seeing more training, more communications flowing out, more activity overall among that original core leadership.

BLOCK: So how do we square that with all the reporting in the past couple of years about how the al-Qaida's threat has morphed or transformed in some ways? The threat is now from lots of local cells and offshoot groups that might be sympathetic to Osama bin Laden but aren't actually directly connected to him.

KELLY: Right. Exactly. I think the fear now is that we have both. That yes, you have these offshoot groups that are perhaps sympathetic to bin Laden but not directly connected to him. And that this is a growing phenomenon in many places around the world, but that you now have in addition, the original core leadership revitalized, more active operationally, more ready to perhaps contemplate attacks. So it's just a scenario you could call the worst of both worlds.

BLOCK: And then the case of Osama bin Laden still missing.

KELLY: Exactly.

BLOCK: We mentioned these offshoot groups at the press conference today. President Bush was also asked about al-Qaida in Iraq and whether it's the same organization that Osama bin Laden himself runs, is it?

KELLY: This is a key question. And it's key because President Bush and his advisers regularly invoke al-Qaida as a real reason for the U.S. not to leave Iraq. Now, we heard that this morning in the press conference that we've been clips from. The President said to withdraw too early would mean, and I'll quote him, "surrendering the future of Iraq to al-Qaida."

I think it's important to draw a distinction here. There is al-Qaida, the organization that attacked the U.S. on 9/11. There is al-Qaida in Iraq, an organization that is predominantly Iraqi and which did not exist before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Now the Bush administration will point out and the President did this morning, al-Qaida in Iraq has pledged loyalty to this original core leader and to bin Laden. That's true. It's also true that core al-Qaida - bin Laden, Zawahiri - have recognized al-Qaida in Iraq as their arm in that country.

I think the best way to characterize the relationship is it's a franchise. It is a group that subscribes to a similar ideology but it doesn't necessarily -al-Qaida in Iraq - share many operational lengths with the original core group.

BLOCK: What about the core group's global ambitions?

KELLY: A couple of schools have thought on this. Many people believe that al-Qaida in Iraq has gotten more than enough to keep it busy in Iraq, that they have Iraqi ambitions at most regional ambitions. That said, there are growing concerns about the movement, the traffic back and forth in terms of jihadi fighters going between Iraq up to Europe, perhaps leaving Iraq taking the skills and resources they've learned there, going elsewhere in the Middle East perhaps to the West.

BLOCK: Thank you Mary Louise.

KELLY: You're welcome.

BLOCK: That was NPR's intelligence correspondent Mary Louise Kelly.

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