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We begin today by marking six years since the terror attacks of 9/11. Those six years have seen wars launched in Iraq and Afghanistan. They've seen sweeping reforms of U.S. intelligence and domestic security operations. And hundreds of billions of dollars spent overseas on what's come to be known as the war on terror. Yet the threat from al-Qaida remains grave. U.S. intelligence officials speak of a terror network that far declining appears to be gathering strength.
NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports.
MARY LOUISE KELLY: Six years ago today, the al-Qaida threat looked something like this - a shadowy terrorist network bent on attacking the U.S. and led by two men, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, hiding along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Six years on and the broad outlines of the threat look pretty much the same.
In the two videos he released to commemorate the 9/11 anniversary, bin Laden's beard may be blacker, but his hatred of the United States is clearly undiminished.
(Soundbite of video)
Mr. OSAMA BIN LADEN (Al-Qaida Leader): (Arabic spoken)
KELLY: Bin Laden declaring there that U.S. policy in Iraq has failed. The Bush administration dismissed the tape. On FOX News this past weekend, White House adviser Frances Townsend suggested bin Laden isn't capable of much these days beyond bluster.
Ms. FRANCES TOWNSEND (Homeland Security Adviser): This is about the best he can do. This is a man on the run, from a cave, who's virtually impotent other than these tapes.
KELLY: But plenty of people disagree.
Mr. BRUCE RIEDEL (Former CIA Officer): Frankly, I think Ms. Townsend is trying to give us a spin to explain why this president took his eye off the ball and failed to kill this man or bring him to justice when he had the opportunity.
KELLY: That's former CIA officer and National Security Council staffer Bruce Riedel. He argues bin Laden and his deputies today are far from impotent.
Mr. RIEDEL: Every major terrorist operation in the United Kingdom over the last five years, including the July 2005 attack on the London subways and last year's plot, which was thwarted before it was able to destroy 10 jumbo jets over the North Atlantic, was linked back to al-Qaida in Pakistan and to the senior leadership of al-Qaida in Pakistan.
KELLY: That pattern was apparent again just last week, when officials in both Denmark and Germany announced they had thwarted bomb plots and arrested men with suspected ties to al-Qaida.
Dr. WOLFGANG SCHAUBLE (Interior Minister, Germany): (Speaking German)
KELLY: Wolfgang Schauble, Germany's interior minister, told reporters the three men arrested there all allegedly trained at a camp in Pakistan. According to a national intelligence estimate completed this summer, al-Qaida has rebuilt a safe haven inside Pakistan. It remains as determined as ever to attack the U.S. and it would like to use chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons to do so.
CIA Director Mike Hayden sounded this warning five days ago.
Mr. MICHAEL HAYDEN (Director, CIA): We assess, with high confidence, that al-Qaida is focusing on targets that would produce mass casualties, dramatic destruction, and significant economic aftershocks.
KELLY: Hayden's boss, National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell, told Congress yesterday that while al-Qaida has rebuilt, the group is still not as strong as it was back on 9/11. That's the argument his boss, President Bush, has made when confronted with evidence of a revitalized al-Qaida.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Al-Qaida is - would have been a heck of a lot stronger today had we not stayed on the offense. And it's in the interest of the United States to not only defeat them overseas so we don't have to face them here, but also to spread an ideology that will defeat their ideology every time.
KELLY: That line about defeating the terrorists overseas so we don't have to face them here is a favorite of the president's. He uses it to defend ongoing U.S. military operations in Iraq. But former senior CIA analyst Paul Pillar says it's misleading.
Mr. PAUL PILLAR (Former Senior CIA Analyst): It's as if terrorists were polite enough, you know, to have the courtesy to fight us only one place at a time. You know, they aren't like that.
KELLY: CIA veteran Bruce Riedel is also skeptical of the administration's claims of progress in the war on terror. He notes that while there was progress right after 9/11, no senior al-Qaida leaders have been killed or captured in Pakistan in more than a year. Riedel also points to the flood of messages this year from al-Qaida's media wing. Zawahiri has released at least 10 tapes so far. And, Riedel argues, al-Qaida has succeeded spectacularly at launching new franchise groups across the Middle East.
Mr. RIEDEL: There's one in Iraq that's extremely deadly. There's another one in Saudi Arabia which looks to be temporarily in eclipse but which I wouldn't rule out coming back big time in the future. And there's a stronger and more deadly one now in North Africa.
KELLY: That one, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, tried just last week to assassinate Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. And, Riedel says, there are now smaller al-Qaida franchises popping up across Europe, signs of an enemy that he believes is today more determined and more deadly than ever.
Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.
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