With the capture over the weekend of the man responsible for orchestrating 9/11, anti-war protestors have been robbed of one of their most potent arguments, that ridding the world of Saddam Hussein will distract the U.S. from continuing to dismantle al Qaeda. The arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed while he slept in a quiet house in Pakistan proves that the war on terror goes on unabated.
Sheikh Mohammed has long been a tantalizing target, because he is the nexus connecting most of the al Qaeda terrorists in U.S. custody. He is—actually, was—the man behind Osama bin Laden, the spiritual leader and figurehead of al Qaeda. While bin Laden was off making videos to recruit new terrorists or send dire warnings to the United States, Sheikh Mohammed was the one making the terrorist attacks a reality. He was the details guy, the one who conceived of 9/11 and oversaw the execution of his grand design.
After the war in Afghanistan depleted al Qaeda’s manpower and resources, Sheikh Mohammed was the one who helped the organization morph into an even more looseknit network where midlevel agents had the authority to select targets and execute attacks. He helped shift the focus, at least temporarily, to “soft” targets, such as the nightclub in Bali, where 202 people died.
Aside from Sheikh Mohammed, al Qaeda’s other top two operational leaders have already been captured. Abu Zubaydah, who was arrested early last year in Pakistan, is perhaps most famous for providing the bulk of the “intelligence” that spurred U.S. officials to release a torrent of vague, hazy warnings of possible terrorist attacks. Ramzi bin al Shieb, who was with Sheikh Mohammad last June when he was interviewed by an al Jazeera reporter in an apartment in Karachi, Pakistan, was the point of contact for 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta and helped guide the execution of 9/11. He was arrested on the anniversary of the attacks, on September 11, 2002.
The arrests of bin al Shieb and Sheikh Mohammed both happened after the Bush administration had turned almost its entire military focus to Saddam Hussein. But in the midst of the efforts to disarm Saddam and making the case for war in Iraq, the President has not taken his eye off al Qaeda. He keeps a list of top al Qaeda figures still on the lam. There is now one less name on that list—but one of the operational leaders still on the list is Abu al-Zarqawi, who was given safe haven by Saddam Hussein. After being mentioned by Secretary of State Colin Powell in an address to the United States Security Council, al-Zarqawi may no longer be operating openly in Baghdad, but he remains free today because of Saddam Hussein.
Al Qaeda may be down, but it is not out. Many other al Qaeda leaders are still roaming free, plotting and planning more terrorist attacks. But even if every figure of the organization known as al Qaeda is hunted down, the war on terror will not be over. The nature of the threat we face is such that we are fighting a war without end. We are fighting a doctrine—which cloaks itself in the protective cover of Islam—that exists solely to defeat freedom. But the purveyors of this dogma do not plant a flag anywhere or attempt to defend a piece of land. They are nomads who seek money from fellow believers and shelter from fellow foes of freedom. They are amoeba-like, with no set structure and scattering and reconstituting as necessary.
Removing Saddam Hussein will require the U.S. to employ different tactics and resources than those used to vanquish al Qaeda. But fighting Saddam is not distinct from fighting the war on terror—and not just in the sense that Zarqawi and others operating with Saddam’s blessing. The greatest threat to the worldwide terror network is freedom.
A free Iraq could eventually lead to a free Iran and a free Saudi Arabia—and the dominoes could continue to fall from there. Free governments actively root out terrorists within their borders, but more importantly, free people think twice before signing up with terrorists because they have something no one wants to lose: freedom.