Former president Donald Trump — about two weeks before the 20-year anniversary of 9/11 — downplayed the threat Osama bin Laden posed to the United States, falsely claiming the founder and leader of al-Qaeda, which carried out the terrorist attacks, had just “one hit.” He also said his administration killed “bigger” terrorists.
As the United States grapples with its withdrawal from Afghanistan, where it launched a near-20-year war in response to the 2001 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans, Trump appeared on a conservative radio talk show hosted by Hugh Hewitt. The call took place the same day 13 U.S. troops were killed in bombings at the Kabul airport. The Islamic State-Khorasan, the Afghanistan and Pakistan arm of the Islamic State, has taken credit for the attack.
Trump boasted about a 2019 raid that took out the terrorist group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, along with a 2020 airstrike that killed prominent Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani. Both leaders, Trump told Hewitt on Thursday, were “bigger by many, many times” than bin Laden.
“Osama bin Laden had one hit, and it was a bad one, in New York City, the World Trade Center,” Trump said. “But these other two guys were monsters. They were monsters.”
In actuality, bin Laden, considered by counterterrorism experts to be among the most dangerous terrorists in history, was responsible for more than one attack on Americans.
“Virtually every counterterrorism expert in the Western world would consider Osama bin Laden one of the most dangerous terrorists, whose actions went far beyond 9/11,” said Thomas Warrick, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan think tank.
The Obama administration found and killed bin Laden in 2011. Warrick, who served as deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism policy at the Department of Homeland Security under both Barack Obama and Trump, said Trump’s comments were “completely incorrect.” Trump, Warrick added, was trying to “justify his actions and … diminish the accomplishments of President Obama.”
Before the 9/11 attacks, which killed 2,977 people on American soil, al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the August 1998 attacks at U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, which left 224 dead and about 5,000 injured. A dozen U.S. citizens were killed in those attacks.
Al-Qaeda was also responsible for the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, a Navy destroyer that was in port in Aden, Yemen. That attack killed 17 U.S. sailors and injured dozens more.
Warrick said bin Laden’s ability to recruit other terrorist groups to create a network made him particularly dangerous. It was “certainly something that vastly exceeded what Baghdadi was able to do,” he said.
Although Baghdadi was able to capture large swaths of Iraq and Syria, he “enjoyed a far shorter operational life span,” Warrick said. Though, to be sure, the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for numerous deadly attacks around the world.
Baghdadi was killed in a risky October 2019 military raid in northwest Syria when he detonated a suicide belt. Trump later boasted that Baghdadi died like a “dog.” The terrorist group remains active.
In January 2020, the Trump administration ordered an airstrike that killed Soleimani outside an airport in Baghdad — a move that dramatically escalated tensions between the United States and Iran. Soleimani led Iran’s Quds Force, which backed militias in Iraq fighting U.S. troops. The group also took part in a plot to kill a Saudi diplomat at a Washington restaurant.
Since the Taliban rapidly overtook Afghanistan this month, prompting a fraught evacuation process for U.S. citizens and allies, Trump has sent out several statements bashing President Biden’s handling of the withdrawal. On Hewitt’s show, Trump called the evacuation “the most embarrassing moment for our military and for our country.”
Trump also appeared Thursday night on Fox News and told host Sean Hannity that the Kabul airport attacks “would not have happened if I was your president.”