President Bush yesterday said stopping Osama bin Laden from committing a new attack on U.S. soil is “the greatest challenge of our day,” but vowed that the United States eventually will bring to justice the mastermind of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
In a rare mention of bin Laden, who has eluded U.S. authorities for years, the president noted that the al Qaeda terrorist recently came out of hiding to urge his chief ally in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi, to attack Americans.
“Bin Laden’s message is a telling reminder that al Qaeda still hopes to attack us on our own soil,” Mr. Bush said during the swearing-in ceremony for Michael Chertoff, who took over the Department of Homeland Security last month.
“Stopping them is the greatest challenge of our day. … We’re on a constant hunt for bin Laden. We’re keeping the pressure on him, keeping him in hiding. And today, Zarqawi understands that coalition and Iraqi troops are on a constant hunt for him as well,” Mr. Bush said.
Later in the day, after a trip to CIA headquarters in Langley to meet with agency Director Porter J. Goss, the president pledged to stay on the hunt.
“We … spend every day gathering information to locate Osama bin Laden” and others, he said. “We’re not resting on our laurels. We’ve had great successes. But that doesn’t mean that we should stop.”
Mr. Bush said al Qaeda is now operating with few senior operatives, many of whom have been captured or killed by U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“If al Qaeda was structured like corporate America, you’d have a chairman of the board still in office, but many of the key operators would no longer be around — in other words, the executive vice presidents, the operating officers, the people responsible for certain aspects of the organization have been brought to justice,” he said.
But Mr. Bush also said the search for bin Laden will continue until he is found.
“There’s more work to be done. And it’s a matter of time. As far as I’m concerned and as far as the CIA is concerned, it’s a matter of time before we bring these people to justice,” the president said.
During the administration of the oath of office for Mr. Chertoff, held at the Ronald Reagan Building, Mr. Bush lauded the new homeland security secretary.
“Under Mike’s leadership, we will do everything in our power to meet that challenge. Mike is wise, and he is tough — in a good way,” he said to laughter.
“He knows the nature of the enemy. As head of the criminal division at the Department of Justice, Mike helped trace the September 11th attacks to the al Qaeda network. And it didn’t take him very long to do so.”
After the September 11, 2001, attacks killed nearly 3,000 Americans, Mr. Bush vowed to get bin Laden “dead or alive.” But bin Laden has eluded U.S. efforts, surfacing occasionally on audio or video tape to taunt Mr. Bush and spur terrorists to commit more attacks.
U.S. intelligence thinks bin Laden is hiding in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan and has confirmed that he has been in contact with Zarqawi. In an audiotape message purportedly made by bin Laden, Zarqawi was formally named as the head of al Qaeda in Iraq.
Army Gen. John Abizaid, chief of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee this week that bin Laden and the remaining members of the al Qaeda senior leadership have been “our priority target” since the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But, he added, “It’s important for all of us to know that military forces do best in attacking the network as opposed to looking for a specific person.”
Bin Laden is thought to have evaded capture during the 2001 battle of Tora Bora in Afghanistan and gone into hiding along the border with his top deputy and a circle of supporters protecting him. Some experts think that he might be spending time in Pakistani cities.
There have been few recent leads on his whereabouts. At the end of last year, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said, “The trail has gone cold.” On Wednesday, Abdul Muqtader Frozanfar, the Afghan consul general in Karachi, Pakistan, told reporters that none of the al Qaeda leaders, including bin Laden, remain in Afghanistan.
While U.S. forces continue searching for bin Laden, Zarqawi, who is blamed for orchestrating terrorist attacks against U.S. forces and Iraqis, has become the most-hunted man in that country.
Earlier yesterday, Mr. Bush spoke by phone with Iraq’s prime minister, Iyad Allawi.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said they talked about the formation of a new government after the Jan. 30 elections “and the importance of making sure that is an Iraqi process.”