If so many of Al-Qaida's "key members and associates" have been captured or killed, making us all safer, as George W. Bush claims, then why is Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's deputy, on my TV right now? Zawahiri has surfaced today in a new videotape, taunting America and claiming that al-Qaida has U.S. troops "on the run" in Afghanistan. It's unknown when the tape was shot -- but the video is a reminder that Zawahiri, like his boss OBL, is still at large. This is an obvious point the Bush administration would prefer we all ignore -- at the Republican convention in New York last week, bin Laden was the real elephant in the room. Rather than admit that the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks had eluded capture, Bush trotted out the new statistic meant to gloss it all over: "More than three quarters al Qaeda's key members and associates have been detained or killed," he said in his convention speech. Bush has repeated this stat on the stump. But there's a problem: It is almost certainly not true.
Newsweek points out that not only has Bush increased the alleged number of al Qaeda leaders who had been put out of commission without any explanation -- he previously said "two-thirds" had been captured or killed -- but Bush isn't providing evidence for either figure. "White House and U.S. intelligence officials declined to provide any back-up data for how they developed the new number -- or even to explain the methodology that was used," Newsweek reported. A 9/11 commission official put it more colorfully: "It was meaningless when they said two-thirds and it's meaningless when they said three-fourths. This sounds like it was pulled out of somebody's orifice."
Not only is there no hard figure for how many al-Qaida "key members and associates" there were pre-9/11, it's as difficult to judge how many there are now (although we can count in Zawahiri at least), and how many new recruits have been added to the al-Qaida fold as others are captured or killed.
Regardless of the funny numbers, as Knight-Ridder recently reported, even if al-Qaida's leadership has been shaken and its ability to coordinate another strike hampered, the threat of a terrorist attack on the U.S. is as strong as ever, especially from spin-off terrorist groups like the one that pulled off the Madrid train attack.
Further, it's amazing that Bush is even claiming credit for the capture and killing of al-Qaida members and associates. The Bush campaign has ridiculed John Kerry for suggesting that law enforcement and intelligence-gathering play a central role in combatting terrorism -- Kerry doesn't understand, the GOP says, that this is war and requires the full force of the U.S. military. But as Knight-Ridder pointed out, law enforcement and intelligence-gathering have achieved whatever success there has been so far in the global round-up of terrorist suspects. Military actions have had little effect. "While the war began with U.S. troops and their Afghan allies ousting the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in late 2001, much of al-Qaida's leadership escaped that onslaught to Pakistan. Since then, the counterterrorism successes largely have been the result of multinational cooperation from police and intelligence services," Knight-Ridder wrote.
Add this to the pile of reasons America should question Bush's leadership in fighting terrorism.