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Are we really winning the war?


President Bush says we’re making good progress in the war against terrorism. Slowly we are rounding up the al-Qaeda operatives and putting a major crimp in the organization’s worldwide operations, we are told.

Funny, but it doesn’t feel that way right now.

Late last week we learned that the government is reacting to a new, unsubstantiated terrorist threat against U.S. financial institutions in the Northeast. Some reports indicated that al-Qaeda members are planning to execute suicide bombing missions against banks in particular in hopes of further disrupting the U.S. economy.

The FBI sent the alert to authorities in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and the District of Columbia. Whether those states were chosen due to some specific information received by the FBI, or merely because they comprise the northeast region of our country is unclear. What is clear is that about 25 percent of the American public now is a bit more jittery than it was before last Friday, worried that a suicide bomber could walk into a bank in their town and do what until the last six months or so was unthinkable -- willingly sacrifice his or her own life in hopes of killing as many of the “enemy” as possible.

We have perhaps the most tragic day in our nation’s history last September 11 as an example of an elaborately planned suicide bombing. We have the recent rash of Palestinian individuals strapping on explosives and blowing themselves up in densely populated areas of Israel as horrifying examples of what death and destruction people with certain radical beliefs are capable of inflicting.

People in Israel probably think long and hard before they venture out into a busy population center. In the past few days, some of those fears may have crept into the minds of people in places like Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Certainly everyone hopes that nothing comes of the FBI warning. But this is another example of the forces of terrorism getting the upper hand, by changing our way of thinking and in some cases the way we live our lives. More progress is needed, Mr. President.

Even though the president reassures us that we are winning the war, it appears evident that we in fact suffered the biggest defeat of the war in December when Osama bin Laden was surrounded in his series of caves in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border. Reports last week indicate that our military made a critical error in trusting Afghans who we thought were allied with us against bin Laden to seal off his only possible route of escape. Fearing possible American casualties in a fierce battle, the military leadership turned to what they thought were Afghan sympathizers with the American cause. Unfortunately, according to reports late last week, bin Laden was allowed to escape what was our best-ever chance to capture or kill him.

Now, despite the fact that some believe bin Laden is dead, there is no proof of that. There are no rumors circulating from “reliable sources” that he is dead. If the world’s most-wanted man had been killed, certainly there would be rumblings about it which would eventually leak out from within the al-Qaeda ranks. We all know people who can’t keep secrets, and it would be difficult to keep news like that under wraps for very long.

The capture or death of bin Laden would at least disrupt and maybe even disintegrate the al-Qaeda organization. If he is dead, it’s unlikely that al-Qaeda would still be organized enough to plan another suicide bombing operation in the U.S., or even just plant the rumor of one.

Bush recently said that continued public focus on individual terrorists, including bin Laden, means that “people don’t understand the scope of the mission.”

“Terror is bigger than one person,” Bush said in March. “He’s a person that’s now been marginalized.” The president said bin Laden had “met his match” and “may even be dead. I truly am not that concerned about him."

Let’s hope that’s a smoke screen. Let’s hope that the military planners truly understand how important it will be to cut off the head of al-Qaeda by getting bin Laden. And let’s hope that the next time we have him cornered, our military leaders will send in Americans to finish the job.

This column was written April 21, 2002, and published in several print and web publications across the country.

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