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Robertson: Al Qaeda slicker even with bin Laden out of sight

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Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events. Nic Robertson is currently reporting from inside Pakistan.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNN) -- So much has changed since the days after 9/11, when I watched first-hand inside Afghanistan as al Qaeda was blasted out of its terror training camps by U.S. warplanes.

And yet in that same time very little in the battle against al Qaeda has really moved on.

Five years after the al Qaeda attacks in the United States, the Islamist militant group and its ideological affiliates are still attacking Western targets, killing their citizens: Bali 2002 -- nearly 200 killed; Madrid 2004 -- more than 180 dead; and London 2005 -- 52 killed, with another foiled attack that could have been equally deadly.

Al Qaeda's Internet messages are an almost routine monthly affair. The five-year-old tape released Thursday is proof that the terror group wants to show it is still in the game. (Watch suspected terrorists practice martial arts -- 2:44)

I was in Kabul on September 11. The Taliban were in power. Osama bin Laden had been their guest for five years. With what was then cutting-edge technology, the videophone, we broadcast live the Taliban denials of bin Laden's involvement in the attacks.

The Taliban threatened us, saying crowds would pull us limb from limb if we tried to stay in Afghanistan. But it was the war on terror -- as the hunt for bin Laden and his al Qaeda allies was to be known -- that ultimately forced us to retreat across the border to Pakistan. Less than three months later, bin Laden would do the same thing, chased out by heavy American bombing. It was the last time he was seen.

Bin Laden ran away, but he continues his fight today, popping up occasionally on the Internet with his lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri. And that's why I'm back in the hotel in Pakistan trying to figure out why bin Laden is still free and what has happened to al Qaeda five years on.

To understand that you can't just fast forward from 9/11 to today.

I've been following America's war on terror across the world. I was in Baghdad, Iraq, when the massive U.S. bombing barrages that forced Saddam Hussein from power in 2003 came crashing down. I've embedded with U.S. troops, hauled my gear on foot alongside Marines in the massive Falluja offensive of 2004, been shot at with Iraqi politicians in 2005, and watched men burn and women cry in 2006.

To a man and woman, most U.S. troops I've met in Iraq believe they are fighting the war on terror. Most Iraqis I've met believe they are paying the price.

In Saudi Arabia I've witnessed police shootouts with al Qaeda. In Jordan, along its impoverished back streets, I tracked the roots of al Qaeda's most bloodthirsty killer, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, himself killed in an attack on his safehouse in June.

Mindset in Middle East changing

For the past five years I've criss-crossed the Middle East. There are common threads. The common people are mostly warm and welcoming. But there is a sea change under way. The looks I get from those who don't know me are far less happy than they used to be. Wherever I go, faces are souring.

That's how it was when I got off the plane here. I know the Pakistanis. I know how warm and friendly they are. A few months ago I brought my wife and daughters here for a wedding. It was a wonderful experience they'll never forget. But the fact is, people just aren't as happy to see Westerners as they used to be. We come with baggage.

Ask anyone why and they'll tell you, "your government, Mr. Blair," or sometimes they think I'm American, "Mr. Bush is against Muslims." Why else, their argument goes, would your soldiers kill Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan?

I heard the same thing in London this summer and last. "We are angry," hard-line Islamists told me, "with the British government's foreign policy, putting British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan."

These young men see themselves as Muslim first, British second. They listen to al Qaeda's messages, watch tapes of Osama bin Laden and cheer at the 9/11 attack. Their views are some of the most radical I've come across since I used to meet with the Taliban.

It's clear that bin Laden still has relevance. Ask in Pakistan, the last country he was believed to be headed toward, why he hasn't been caught and you'll get a conspiracy theory. Pakistan's military president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, won't catch him because if he does the Americans won't need him and his autocratic rule any more and will dump him. Like all conspiracy theories, this one is shot full of holes and denied by the Americans. Push a little harder and you may get closer to what people really think.

The hard-liners believe no one will help because Pakistanis don't trust America and dislike its war on terror. Musharraf's critics say he is a hard-liner whose policies have empowered the country's influential religious parties. His opponents say he strikes a fine balance, telling the religious leaders they need him to keep America at bay while telling the Americans they need him to keep the religious leaders at bay.

Little in the hunt for al Qaeda or bin Laden is done, they say, without massive pressure from the United States.

Over the past five years the cumulative effect is that only a handful of al Qaeda figures, most notably Khalid Sheik Mohammad, the reported coordinator of the 9/11 attacks, has been picked up. Significantly, most have been picked up in Pakistan's teeming cities. Not hiding in caves.

I've been discovering a far more worrying trend than Pakistan simply harboring former al Qaeda leaders. It is becoming a principal al Qaeda hub of operation. London bombers Shahzad Tanwer and Mohammad Sediq Khan came here for training and to record their suicide messages before their July 7 attack in 2005. Their messages were later released by al Qaeda's video production arm, As Sahab, apparently a Pakistan-based operation.

And this year the arrests in London in August over the suspected multiple hijacking plot came after a British Pakistani was arrested here. And there's more.

People across the Middle East -- from moderates to radicals to plain ill-informed -- tell me the real reason America is not getting what it wants is that the United States has mishandled its war on terror to the point that it's backfired.

The conclusion here is the threat of terror attacks is as great, if not greater, than it ever was.

That's what I'm thinking about as my team and I rush to set up for a live broadcast about the latest al Qaeda message. Of course, like al Qaeda's, our job is technically easier than it was five years ago. Gone is the videophone. Nowadays you simply hook up to the hotel broadband and off you go.

"So what does this latest message mean?" the CNN anchor in Atlanta asks me. A valid question. The best answer, I think, from all we know, is that it surely doesn't mean anything good.

A few days ago in a now familiar hotel room in Islamabad, I got a call from CNN's headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, telling me a new al Qaeda video had just been released. (Full story)

Five years ago that would have been massive news. Now I wasn't even surprised. So slick has Osama bin Laden's terror group become, I had seen al Qaeda's heralding of their latest anti-Western diatribe on a broadband Internet connection two days earlier.


CNN's Nic Robertson reporting from Pakistan.

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