By Bill Nichols, USA TODAY
Wed Aug 10, 7:26 AM ET
Nearly four years after the Sept. 11 attacks, Americans are less optimistic that Osama bin Laden will be captured or killed and say they believe al-Qaeda will remain a threat even if he is caught.
A USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll taken Friday through Sunday also found that more than three-quarters of those surveyed say they believe bin Laden is planning a significant terrorist attack against the United States.
A majority, 53%, predict he will succeed.
Nearly seven out of eight say it remains important to the United States for bin Laden to be captured or killed.
Though bin Laden continues to have enormous symbolic value as the mastermind of 9/11, most Americans say his capture or death would do little to increase the nation’s safety.
«I think everybody has come to understand that it’s important to get bin Laden from a psychological and symbolic perspective. … It would be the clearest form of justice for Sept. 11,» says Charles Pena, a national security analyst at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington. «But that’s balanced by the reality that people have come to understand that we are no longer dealing … with al-Qaeda as this relatively small group of terrorists. We are dealing with a much larger problem.»
In a meeting with USA TODAY’s editorial board Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said that although it «would be significant» if bin Laden were captured or killed, «it’s a mistake to personalize this. This is not a one-man band or a one-man show.»
Bin Laden was last seen by the public Oct. 29, when the Arab satellite network Al-Jazeera broadcast a videotape before the U.S. presidential election, in which President Bush faced Democrat John Kerry.
Bin Laden, looking healthy and composed, said it didn’t matter who won the election. «Your security is not in the hands of Kerry, Bush or al-Qaeda,» he said. But a country «which does not harm our (Arab) security will remain safe.»
U.S. intelligence concluded at the end of major fighting in Afghanistan 3½ years ago that bin Laden probably escaped through Tora Bora, a mountainous region on the border with Pakistan.
Al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, appeared in a videotape broadcast on Al-Jazeera last week. He promised more violent attacks as long as U.S., British and other non-Muslim forces remain in Iraq.
In the poll:
• A majority, 55%, say they believe U.S. forces are likely to kill or capture bin Laden. That’s down from 66% a year ago and 78% just after Sept. 11, 2001.
• Almost everyone surveyed, 92%, says al-Qaeda would remain a threat even if bin Laden were captured or killed.
• More than a third, 35%, say their fire, police and emergency services are not well prepared for a terrorist attack. Sixty-two percent say their local authorities are prepared.
• Confidence that the war on terrorism is going well has dropped to 51% from 65% in December 2003.
The poll has a margin of error of +/-3 to 5 percentage points.
By Bill Nichols, USA TODAY