The Bush administration has failed to recognize that al-Qaeda is now a global Islamic insurgency, rather than a traditional terrorist organization, and so poses a much different threat than previously believed, says a senior counterterrorism official at the CIA.
Michael Scheuer, the former chief of the CIA's Osama bin Laden unit and the author of a best-selling book critical of the administration's handling of the war on terrorism, said in an interview this weekend that the government "doesn't respect the threat" because most officials still regard al-Qaeda as a terrorist organization that can be defeated by arresting or killing its operatives one at a time.
He noted that US President George W. Bush and other officials had repeatedly said that two-thirds of the leadership of al-Qaeda had been killed or captured, but Scheuer said that the figure was misleading because it referred to the leaders who were in place as of Sept. 11, 2001.
Al-Qaeda has replaced many of those dead or captured operatives and continues to thrive as a guiding force for Islamic extremists around the world.
"I think al-Qaeda has suffered substantially since Sept. 11, and it may have slowed down its operations, but to take the two-thirds number as a yardstick is a fantasy," Scheuer said. "To say that they have only one-third of their leadership left is a misunderstanding. That is looking at it from a law enforcement perspective. They pay a lot of attention to leadership succession, and so one of the main tenets of al-Qaeda is to train people to succeed leaders who are captured or killed."
The CIA disputed the idea that they do not understand the evolving nature of al-Qaeda and said the agency had never characterized the two-thirds figure for those killed and captured as anything other than al-Qaeda leaders who were in place before Sept. 11.
"The leadership of the intelligence community and those they brief have a very clear understanding of the threat and understand it to be a question of a global movement rather than a single organization," a CIA spokesman said.