WASHINGTON — Five years after Sept. 11, is the United States winning the war against Al Qaeda? President Bush says yes, but most experts -- including many inside the U.S. government -- say no.
An all-out effort by the United States and its allies has succeeded in making life difficult for Al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, and has probably disrupted any plans they had for further terrorism on the scale of the attacks in 2001, the experts say.
But as even Bush acknowledged last week, Al Qaeda is far from dead.
"In the five years since our nation was attacked, Al Qaeda and terrorists it has inspired have continued to attack across the world," the president said. "The terrorist danger remains."
In a series of recent speeches to mark the anniversary of the attacks, Bush has declared: "America is winning the war on terror" and cited a list of achievements: "We've removed terrorist sanctuaries, disrupted their finances, killed and captured key operatives, broken up terrorist cells in America and other nations, and stopped new attacks before they're carried out."
But terrorism experts worry that those successes have been mostly tactical, short-term gains -- the equivalent of winning the first few battles in a long war. On longer-term strategic issues, they warn, the U.S. may have lost ground since 2001:
* Al Qaeda, the initial focus of the "global war on terror," has been disrupted and dispersed. But it has been succeeded by a looser network of affiliates and homegrown terrorists -- like those who carried out bombings in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005 -- who could grow to be just as dangerous.
* The war in Iraq has become a training ground for Islamic extremists from Saudi Arabia and other countries, and some have returned home with expertise in urban warfare and explosives. Some experts fear the Persian Gulf's oil terminals could be among their next targets.
* Wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon have damaged the image of the U.S. in much of the Muslim world and made it easier for terrorist organizations to win recruits. The wars and controversies over U.S. treatment of detainees also have made it more difficult for allied governments to cooperate with American counterterrorism programs, diplomats say.
* When Foreign Policy magazine surveyed more than 100 experts earlier this year, 84% said they did not believe the United States was winning the war on terrorism. In a Los Angeles Times poll, fewer than one-fourth of Americans said they believed the nation was "winning"; more than half said it was too soon to tell.
"Even the most sanguine optimist cannot yet conclude we are winning," John F. Lehman Jr., a former Navy secretary under President Reagan, warned in a recent article for the U.S. Naval Institute.
"It looks worse to me," said Bruce Hoffman, a former director of terrorism studies at the Rand Corp. who teaches at Georgetown University and the U.S. Military Academy. "Al Qaeda is still alive and kicking. It's just changed its modus operandi. We've often painted a picture of Al Qaeda in retreat. I'm not sure it isn't Al Qaeda on the march."
When asked for his report card on the war on terrorism, Henry A. Crumpton, the State Department's top counterterrorism officer, paused and said: "It's uneven.... It's hard for me to give it an A or an F. It's a real mixed bag."
At first glance, the experts' gloom may seem odd. There haven't been any successful terrorist attacks inside the U.S. since Sept. 11, although law enforcement officials say there have been several close calls.
"It's been five years, and the U.S. homeland has not been hit," said Daniel Byman, director of Georgetown's security studies program. "I don't know any terrorism experts who called this.... We were all wrong."
As a result, he said: "My assessment is that we're doing reasonably well. If the test is reducing catastrophic violence that can change our lives, we're doing rather well. If it's reducing the overall climate of violence, we're doing fairly poorly. If 30 or 40 Americans die from terrorism each year, that's a tragedy, but it's different from losing 3,000 a year. It's a problem, but it's probably not a strategic problem."
Indeed, some national security experts -- like John Mueller of Ohio State University -- argue that the terrorist threat has been overblown and that a terrorist industry of consultants, government contractors and politicians is hyping the problem out of self-interest.
"For all the attention it evokes, terrorism, in reasonable context, actually causes rather little damage," Mueller said, noting that automobile accidents kill many more Americans than terrorists do. "The likelihood that any individual will become a victim in most places is microscopic."
But the consensus of government officials and nongovernmental experts is that the terrorist threat remains real, and the respite from violence is temporary.