WASHINGTON -- One year after U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, the core of Al Qaeda is greatly diminished and the main terrorist threat has shifted to affiliates in Yemen and elsewhere, senior U.S. intelligence officials said Friday.
“Some could argue that the organization that brought us 9/11 is essentially gone,” said a counter-terrorism official who briefed reporters on Al Qaeda under rules that did not allow him to be identified. “But the movement certainly survives … in a variety of places outside of Pakistan.”
The assessment is backed up by U.S. operations data. The number of reported CIA drone missile strikes against militants and Al Qaeda figures in Pakistan has dropped sharply in recent months, but the pace of drone attacks and other U.S. airstrikes has picked up in Yemen.
“This isn’t a science, where we have a yardstick that says we are halfway toward strategic defeat,” the official said. It’s difficult, he said, “to announce that we’ve achieved strategic defeat when you still have active affiliates, you still have propaganda coming out of Pakistan.”
Ayman Zawahiri, the Egyptian doctor who leads Al Qaeda, is not the unifying figure than Bin Laden was, said Robert Cardillo, deputy director for intelligence integration of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which overseas America’s 16 intelligence agencies.
As a result, Cardillo said, the network’s center of gravity has shifted. Some of the affiliates are more concerned with fighting their own governments than with attacking the West, as Bin Laden had urged. A key challenge, Cardillo said, is balancing effective anti-terrorism operations with the risk of exacerbating local grievances and producing new converts to the Al Qaeda cause.
The political upheaval in the Arab world has been a setback for Al Qaeda’s propagandists, Cardillo said.
“We judge that core Al Qaeda and the global jihadist movement will experience a strategic setback, in that the Arab Spring strikes at the very core of their jihadist narrative,” he said. Elections and other political reforms in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen “threaten the fundamental Al Qaeda view,” he said.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, as the Yemen affiliate is known, remains the greatest threat to the United States. Ibrahim Hassan Asiri, who is believed to have built the underwear bomb used in the failed attempt to destroy an airliner over Detroit in December 2009, remains active in the group, the officials said, and AQAP continues to plot attacks on U.S. targets.
Cardillo said an attack on the United States involving nuclear, chemical or biological weapons is “unlikely” in the next year.
-- Ken Dilanian
Photo: Picture provided by the IntelCenter monitoring group shows Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri speaking in a video released March 16, 2012. Credit: IntelCenter