WASHINGTON (AP) — Nine years after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Barack Obama said the U.S. has forced Osama bin Laden "deep underground" but Americans will face an expanded terror threat for years to come from other al-Qaida extremists "willing to die to kill other people."
The government is no less determined to kill or capture the 9/11 architect, he said. But the nation must remember the fight is with al-Qaida terrorists, not the much wider world of people of Muslim faith.
On the eve of the ninth anniversary of the 2001 attacks, a day magnified by heightened tensions over a planned mosque near Ground Zero and a Florida pastor's threat to burn Qurans, Obama sought on Friday to reinforce the nation's founding belief of religious tolerance.
Saturday, he said, should be a day not only to mourn but to show that "we are not at war against Islam. We're at war against terrorist organizations that have distorted Islam or falsely used the banner of Islam to engage in their destructive acts."
Speaking to reporters in the White House East Room, Obama was blunt about the enduring terror threat that has gripped the nation since al-Qaida terrorists slammed planes into New York's World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon in suburban Virginia and the central Pennsylvania countryside.
"It's just a reality of today's world that there are going to be threats out there," Obama said. "I think, ultimately, we are going to be able to stamp it out. But it, it's going to take some time."
Conceding that efforts to capture or kill bin Laden have so far failed, Obama said that al-Qaida leaders are "holed up" in a way that has made it difficult for the group to operate.
Counterterrorism officials concur that the core al-Qaida leadership — believed to be in hiding in Pakistan along the mountainous border — has been hurt and degraded over the past nine years, and has been struggling for funding.
Obama, describing the pursuit and pressure on bin Laden, said that "we have the best minds, the best intelligence officers, the best special forces, who are thinking about this day and night. And they will continue to think about it day and night as long as I'm president."
Getting bin Laden, said Obama, though extremely important to the country's national security, would hardly solve all problems.
He said homeland security has improved in the past nine years. But, with a nod to the foiled Dec. 25 attempted airliner attack and the botched Times Square car bombing in May, Obama added, "There is always going to be the potential for an individual or a small group of individuals, if they are willing to die, to kill other people. Some of them are going to be very well organized and some of them are going to be random."
A report issued Friday by a group led by the two former 9/11 Commission chairmen said the terror threat has become more complex, as al-Qaida and an array of affiliates and allies in countries like Yemen and Somalia take on a broader strategy.
"I think the American relationship with the Islamic world is one of the really great foreign policy challenges of the next decades," said former 9/11 co-chairman Lee Hamilton. "We're not going to solve it in a year or two or five or even 10 years."
He said the "debates we're having today in New York City and Florida and other places reflects that. How do we get right, how do we line up this relationship better than we do."
While Hamilton warned the nation not to become complacent, Obama struck a slightly different tone. Americans, he said, must not overreact or live in fear. Their strength, he added, comes from the nation's resilience.
"We go about our business. We are tougher than them," Obama said. "We are going to have this problem out there for a long time to come, but it doesn't have to completely distort us and it doesn't have to dominate our foreign policy. What we can do is to constantly fight against it."
Obama said the country should observe the Sept. 11 anniversary as a day of "service and remembrance." Americans should find a way to serve their fellow citizens and rekindle the spirit of unity and common purpose felt in the wake of the 2001 terror attacks, he added.
The president is expected to attend a service at the Pentagon on Saturday, while first lady Michelle Obama will appear with former first lady Laura Bush in Shanksville, Pa.
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