The fourth anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, has come and gone, with no other al Qaeda-sponsored attacks on U.S. soil since that fateful day. Are Americans starting to feel complacent the United States will be able to keep al Qaeda at bay in the near future?
Not according to an August CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll*, which shows most Americans believe Osama bin Laden is actively planning a U.S. attack, and a substantial percentage think his plan will succeed. And, Americans are resigned that even if bin Laden is killed, the threat wouldn't go away.
How Big a Threat Is bin Laden?
Roughly three-fourths (76%) of Americans think that "bin Laden himself is currently planning a significant terrorist attack against the United States." Of these, slightly more than half think he will succeed. All told, then, 40% of Americans believe bin Laden is planning an attack that will succeed, 36% believe he is planning an attack that will not succeed, and 20% do not believe he is planning an attack.
Hunt for Osama
In the fall of 2001, how many Americans would have guessed that bin Laden would still be at large four years later? In late November 2001, 78% of Americans felt it was "very" (34%) or "somewhat" (44%) likely that the United States would be able to capture or kill bin Laden. Today, Americans express a more tempered optimism -- 55% believe bin Laden's capture or demise is very (17%) or somewhat (38%) likely. Results on this question have varied substantially over the past four years. The current very/somewhat likely percentage is the same as the low measured in March 2002. Optimism was highest in the first few months after the terrorist attacks.
Eliminating bin Laden would undoubtedly be a major blow to al Qaeda, but Americans are by no means under the impression that getting rid of bin Laden would mean the end of the terrorist organization he masterminded. Ninety-two percent of Americans say that if even if bin Laden is captured or killed, al Qaeda will remain a threat to the United States.
That said, nearly two-thirds (63%) of Americans think it is either "extremely" (37%) or "very" (26%) important to the United States that bin Laden be captured or killed, with an additional 24% saying "somewhat important."
Last week, al Qaeda released a video that threatened the United States and its allies, warning of impending attacks on Los Angeles and Melbourne, Australia. The speaker on the video is widely believed to be Adam Gadahn, an American from California who is a suspected al Qaeda operative.
This video illustrates how catching bin Laden is most likely just one piece of the puzzle. Nevertheless, bin Laden remains an important piece, and a majority of Americans hold out hope that he will soon be found and dealt with before he has the chance to wreak further havoc.
*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,004 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Aug. 5-7, 2005. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.For results based on the sample of 759 adults who say Osama bin Laden is currently planning a significant terrorist attack against the Untied States, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.