Why We're Still Trying to Catch Osama Bin Laden

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's a Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer Show, Peter Bergen, CNN's national security expert and author of Holy War, Inc. and The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict between America and Al-Qaeda, offered a look at the US mission to capture Osama Bin Laden, almost a decade after the search began..

Nearing the 10-year anniversary of the September 11th attacks, the United States still has not captured Osama Bin Laden.

Exhausted by two wars, many Americans wonder if bringing the Al Qaeda mastermind to justice should still be a priority for the Obama administration. In fact, many Americans wonder if it even is a priority anymore. But Peter Bergen said there is no question that the government is still committed to catching Bin Laden.

Of course it is, but you don't win much if you keep saying it's a big priority and nothing happens. But there are plenty of people in the US government who wake up every morning and think about ways to find Bin Laden. The problem is there aren't very many good ideas now.

There is some silver lining to our seemingly endless pursuit, Bergen said. While Bin Laden certainly remains a force in the Muslim world, he says that his ideology's grip has loosened in recent years, and to a greater degree than most Americans think.

Al Qaeda has always been a small organization, but quite a few people who've known Bin Laden for decades, who've fought with him, who've mentored him, have turned against him publicly. It's very commonplace. People in the US will say Muslims aren't doing enough to speak up against Al Qaeda. In fact, that is totally untrue...The good news is that fewer and fewer peope in the Muslim world are buying into this. Support for suicide bombings is cratering in most Muslim countries, and admiration for Bin Laden is going down.

Bergen also recognized that this would be little consolation for families of 9/11 victims, and for the rest of the country, which would rather see Bin Laden captured and a dark chapter of American history closed. But the United States' inability to find Bin Laden isn't entirely attributed to failures on our end—it reflects the near-insurmountable difficulty of catching an international criminal who doesn't make mistakes. Bergen said the frustration is more than justified.

Finding people is tricky, particularly if they're not making the kind of errors that get you caught. Typically, criminals go to their mother's house or call their family. Bin Laden is not doing these things. On the other hand, this is a big failure, and we've spent half a trillion dollars on our intelligence agency since 9/11, and this basic question, which after all the war was about, has not been answered, which was bringing Bin Laden to justice.

It's necessary to bring Bin Laden to justice because he's a charismatic leader, Bergen said, a figurehead for a dangerous ideology and a man who perhaps does more damage as a symbol than as an actual jihadist. The US needs to capture Bin Laden to end his far-reaching influence on the Muslim world.

Bin Laden's genius was that he was able to produce a single narrative about all problems. If you're a British Muslim living in Britain, it's not British racial discrimination that's your problem, it's because Muslims around the world are under attack. That explains why you may not be getting social advancement, or whatever. Bin Laden has put it in this larger frame of a Christian conspiracy to destroy Islam. Al Qaeda is one thing Bin Laden created, but the ideology is a much larger thing he created.