Eight years after the Sept. 11 attacks, current and former top U.S. intelligence officials say U.S. and allied forces have decimated al Qaeda’s leadership but that the organization remains a “determined adversary.”
Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, called the U.S. record against al Qaeda “mixed.”
While al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri remain at large, the organization has been forced to “perpetually rebuild,” he said.
Still, al Qaeda remains a “determined adversary” and has had success in recruiting Americans to fight with it, he said. He noted incidents of Somali-Americans going to fight alongside extremists in Somalia and said “others travel to Pakistan and Afghanistan” to battle U.S. and allied troops.
Both Gen. Burgess and Leon Panetta, director of the CIA, said al Qaeda’s popularity may be waning among Muslim populations.
“Al Qaeda’s own vicious ideology, founded on the murder of innocent people, has proven to be a major weakness,” Mr. Panetta told the agency’s work force on the eve of Sept. 11 commemorations. “But we cannot wait for popular disgust to isolate and overcome the extremists. We and our allies must continue to press the offensive, eroding their ability to plot and kill.”
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden pointed to recent successes in targeting al Qaeda’s leadership.
He said there have been a “dozen or so al Qaeda leaders who have died since last July ” and that this “has been the most compressed or rapid-fire loss of leadership that Qaeda has had to adapt to, and I think it has had a dramatic impact on them.”
“… You can replace one person at a time; when you have a series of folks who have been dying, it is harder,” he told The Washington Times.
Among those killed in the past 14 months are Khalid Habib, a veteran combat leader and operations chief; Rashid Rauf, considered the mastermind of a 2006 plot to bring down trans-Atlantic jets; Abu Khabab al-Masri, an expert on explosives and chemical and biological weapons; and Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban affiliated with al Qaeda.
While Mr. Hayden would not provide details on how the men died, current and former U.S. counterterrorism officials credit a decision by President Bush in July 2008 to increase the tempo of drone and other attacks into tribal territory in Pakistan along the Afghan border.
Arturo Munoz, a former CIA officer who worked on counterterrorism and was also stationed in Afghanistan, said the decision to step up the drone strikes inside Pakistan was a “political decision” by Mr. Bush that President Obama reaffirmed.
Mr. Munoz, who is now an analyst at the Rand Corporation, added that one reason for the success of the attacks has been the CIA’s recruitment of local sources in the Pashtun border area.
“The reason why the Predator strikes are so precise is in part the technological means of espionage, but also the informants on the ground,” he said. “It is the combination of the two that allows us to do the Predator strikes, which is one of the most effective things we have done. We have decimated their leadership. It is the result of a systematic continuous campaign.”
Roger Cressey, once deputy to former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, said the increase in drone attacks “was directly related to the renewed sense of urgency that the administration had about the threat. What is instructive, is that when Obama was briefed on that in the transition, there was little debate about not continuing those operations. It comes down to the tactical imperative for the network’s ability to train potential operatives to conduct attacks. That is why Obama continued it.”
Mr. Hayden said there also had been successes against al Qaeda branches in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. He said that al Qaeda in Iraq was “near strategic defeat” and that al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia had been strategically defeated despite a recent failed attempt to assassinate a Saudi prince.
“We have had substantial success against al Qaeda, but they remain dangerous,” Mr. Hayden said. “We are not as safe as we need or want to be, but we have made substantial progress.”