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Scarier Than Bin Laden
The U.S. invasion of Iraq presented al-Qaeda with the opportunity to put his arguments into practice. As long ago as the second anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Zawahiri had explained al-Qaeda's strategy in response to what he was already decrying as a repressive U.S.-led occupation. "We thank God," he declared in September 2003, "for appeasing us with the dilemmas in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Americans are facing a delicate situation in both countries. If they withdraw, they will lose everything, and if they stay, they will continue to bleed to death."
Sure enough, what U.S. military commanders had optimistically described four years ago as the jihadist "magnet" or "flytrap" designed to capture al-Qaeda terrorists in Iraq was having precisely the opposite effect, according to Zawahiri's plan: It was enmeshing the U.S. military in a debilitating war of attrition.
The U.S. entanglement in Iraq had an even more incalculable benefit for al-Qaeda. Our preoccupation first with an escalating insurgency and more recently with an incipient civil war consumed the attention of the U.S. military and intelligence communities at a time when bin Laden, Zawahiri and other al-Qaeda commanders were in desperate straits. With the United States trapped in Iraq, bin Laden and Zawahiri were able to save their own skins. For Zawahiri, Iraq was a means of distracting U.S. attention while al-Qaeda regrouped under his aegis.
This, in essence, was the analysis that outgoing Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte offered in congressional testimony last January. The annual threat assessment he presented to the Senate intelligence committee painted a disquieting picture of an al-Qaeda no longer "on the run," as President Bush had described it just three months earlier, but now incontrovertibly on the march.
Iraq has also figured prominently in Zawahiri's plans to reinvigorate the jihadist cause and recapture its momentum. By portraying U.S. efforts in Iraq as an oppressive occupation, he and al-Qaeda's hyperactive media arm, al-Sahab ("the clouds" in Arabic), have been able to propagate an image of Islam as perpetually on the defensive, with no alternative but to take up arms against U.S. aggression. The ongoing violence in Iraq -- coupled with the memory of the Abu Ghraib abuses and with the Guantanamo Bay detentions -- has contributed appreciably to the United States' increasingly poor standing in the Muslim world.
Finally, the appointment of a Zawahiri protege, Abu Ayyub al-Masri (Abu Ayyub "the Egyptian"), to succeed the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as commander of al-Qaeda in Iraq further solidified Zawahiri's influence over operations in that country and the implementation of the terrorism battle plan identified years ago in "Knights Under the Prophet's Banner."
Under Zawahiri's leadership, the post-9/11 al-Qaeda has shown itself to be remarkably nimble and adaptive -- able to compensate for and even obviate some of our most effective countermeasures. Last summer's plot to bomb more than 10 U.S. airliners is a case in point. Instead of more accessible targets such as subways and commuter trains, hotels and tourist destinations, this plan was aimed at perhaps the most internationally hardened target since 9/11: commercial aviation. Its leader was another Zawahiri loyalist from Egypt, Abu Ubaydah al-Masri, al-Qaeda's commander in Afghanistan's Kunar province.
This alarming development called into question some of our most basic assumptions about al-Qaeda's capabilities and intentions, given that the movement seems to retain the same grand homicidal ambitions it demonstrated on 9/11. Its members may be dispersed, but al-Qaeda is once again capable of planning and executing bold terrorist strikes.
Thanks to Zawahiri, instead of al-Qaeda R.I.P., we're facing an al-Qaeda that has risen from the grave.
Bruce Hoffman, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University, is a senior fellow at the U.S. Military Academy's Combating Terrorism Center and the author of "Inside Terrorism."