How is the United States faring in its war against al Qaeda? That's an urgent question now, when the Bush administration is about to embark on a new war against Iraq. If you talk to top Bush administration officials, you get a pretty upbeat assessment of the terrorism campaign. Al Qaeda isn't a spent force, they say, but it's on the run because of an aggressive coalition of intelligence and law enforcement agencies around the world.
To understand this war, let's try to imagine what it looks like from the other side -- from the perspective of an al Qaeda operative in the field. Based on the best information I've been able to gather from U.S. officials, here's how I would read that imaginary agent's mind today:
The squeeze is getting tighter. The British and French rolled up members of our "poison trail" over the past week. We thought we had a tight operation -- bringing deadly poisons such as ricin out of a town in northern Iraq, moving it out by couriers through Georgia and the Persian Gulf. But somehow, they nailed it. Rumor is that they've rumbled 50 members of the poison network. After interrogating those captives, they'll get more.
That's our biggest problem. Too many of our chiefs have been captured -- Abu Zubaida, who was our number-three man but seems to have been a blabbermouth since he was arrested last March; Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who was running our operations in the Gulf until he was grabbed in October; and Ramzi Binalshibh, who helped plan Sept. 11 but spent too much time cruising the Internet on his satellite phone. No wonder the Pakistanis grabbed him in September. Our men don't all talk, but some of them do. Our problem is we don't know which ones!
The Americans are smart. They say, talk to us or you'll have to deal with the Egyptians. And we don't like the sound of that. We may be tough, but we'd like to keep an even number of fingers and toes, along with all of our fingernails. The Americans even have a fancy legal-sounding term for throwing us to the wolves -- "rendition." That means handing us over to foreign intelligence services that don't seem to have general counsels and inspectors general.
But the smartest thing the American interrogators have done is to move our people to countries where they have relatives. That's the pressure that's hardest to resist -- from mother, father, sister, brother.
I read on the Internet the other day where the director of the CIA was bragging in some speech that since September 2001, more than 3,000 al Qaeda operatives or associates have been arrested in more than 100 countries and that they've seized more than $121 million in financial assets we could have used. What a dope! If we'd issued a statement like that, we would have given imaginary numbers. He was probably telling the truth.
That's the biggest problem for those of us left in the field. With so many people arrested and on the run, we don't know whom to trust anymore. We have to assume that the CIA and its allies have doubled some of our people. And by now, they must have penetrated our operations -- how can they miss, when they've got everyone from the Syrians to the Indonesians to the Russians to the Chinese working with them?
The CIA is even cooperating successfully with the Saudis. They managed to break up a nice little operation we had planned against Saudi oil installations not long ago. And the Jordanians are killing us. The Americans may not have a lot of agents of their own, but they're pretty good at renting other people's.
We're still communicating and planning operations. But every time we surface, we risk blowing more information to the Americans and their friends. It's not so easy when we don't have the sanctuary of Afghanistan anymore. We have to stage our operations in more remote places, like Mombassa in East Africa and Bali in Indonesia. We can still operate in areas where there's no real government, such as northeastern Iraq and parts of Georgia. But we're running out of string.
My biggest fear is that the Americans are beginning to play games with us. Every time there's a quarrel among our people about money or operations, I worry that it's because the Americans have been spreading disinformation. They're not very good at that kind of thing, but they've got clever friends like the British, who've been at it for 300 years.
The only reason our leader, Osama bin Laden, is still alive is that he isn't giving the Americans anything to work with. He leaves no "signature" -- no electronic signals they can capture, no discernible movement.
We've got more nasty stuff coming. We tried to hit the White House before and failed; we'll try again. We'll use planes, trucks, ships, dirty nukes -- anything that will spread the terror. Americans will feel our hatred and determination again. The CIA won't break up every one of our operations. It will take just a few people who can get through and create some of the nightmares we planned when we were back in Afghanistan. We're not finished yet.
But I'm not sure we can win. Our leader used to assure us that the Americans were weak people -- they ran away from trouble in Beirut and Somalia and Saudi Arabia. Hit them hard and they will collapse, he said. But I am worried that he was wrong. When we hit them again, hard, then we will see how tough they really are.