BEIRUT - In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, the United States set out to destroy al-Qaida. President George W. Bush vowed to "starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place, until there is no refuge or no rest."
Seventeen years later, al-Qaida may be stronger than ever. Far from vanquishing the extremist group and its associated "franchises," critics say, U.S. policies in the Mideast appear to have encouraged its spread.
What U.S. officials didn't grasp, said Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intelligence Group, in a recent phone interview, is that al-Qaida is more than a group of individuals. "It's an idea, and an idea cannot be destroyed using sophisticated weapons and killing leaders and bombing training camps," she said.
The group has amassed the largest fighting force in its existence. Estimates say it may have more than 20,000 militants in Syria and Yemen alone. It boasts affiliates across North Africa, the Levant and parts of Asia, and it remains strong around the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
It has also changed tactics. Instead of the headline-grabbing terrorist attacks, brutal public executions and slick propaganda used by Islamic State (al-Qaida's onetime affiliate and now rival), al-Qaida now practices a softer approach, embedding itself and gaining the support of Sunni Muslims inside war-torn countries.
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