Defeating al Qaeda doesn’t get U.S. off hook

Ex-counterterrorism chief cites extremists globally

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ASPEN, Colo. — The terror threat against America did not end with the death of Osama bin Laden and will not be over even if U.S. forces defeat al Qaeda, according to Michael E. Leiter, the recently retired director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

The combination of the U.S. special forces operation that killed bin Laden and the largely peaceful popular revolts in the Middle East called the Arab Spring had “in a really potent way … undermined al Qaeda,” he said.

But even if al Qaeda suffers a “strategic defeat” at the hands of U.S. forces, the United States would still face “transnational terror threats,” especially from Pakistan, said Mr. Leiter in his first public comments since leaving his job last month.

“We still have, independent of al Qaeda in Pakistan, an element of violent extremists that we dont have a perfect way of defeating,” he said, noting that several of the most recent attacks against the United States were attempted by groups like the Pakistani Taliban or TTP, the organization behind the attempted bombing in Times Square of New York City last year.

He added that the United States was still dependent on unreliable allies like the Pakistanis to deal with TTP and other non-al Qaeda extremist groups.

Mr. Leiters comments last week at the Aspen Security Forum diverge from the more upbeat assessments provided by still-serving officials at the forum and elsewhere, who have emphasized instead how close the United States is getting to defeating al Qaeda altogether.

Instead, Mr. Leiter noted that the death of bin Laden might actually increase the threat of smaller-scale plots from al Qaeda central, based in Pakistan.

Previously, such attacks as the attempted underwear bombing of a U.S. jetliner on Christmas Day 2009, or last years printer cartridge cargo bomb plot have been carried out by al Qaedas affiliates in other countries, while bin Laden and his al Qaeda central waited, holding out for the chance of a “spectacular” attack to rival the impact of the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings.

“Information that we were able to exploit from the raid [on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan] showed he wasn’t the CEO of a multinational corporation, he was the slightly out-of-touch leader of a broad, dysfunctional family who frankly were operating on their own agendas much more than his agenda,” Mr. Leiter said.

He also noted that smaller-scale plots still can have a big effect.

“You don’t need a 9/11 to have an enormous emotional impact on a country,” as the recent bombing and shooting rampage by a Norwegian rightist has done, he said.

“You don’t need a 9/11 to have enormous geopolitical impacts,” he added, citing the Pakistani extremist attack in Mumbai in November 2008, which nearly provoked a war with India.

Mr. Leiter also raised concerns that, for U.S. intelligence, 10 years of intense focus on counterterrorism work, and especially paramilitary capture-or-kill operations, risked atrophy for its traditional missions of providing strategic intelligence to U.S. decision makers.

“The question has to be asked: Has that in some ways diminished some of its strategic, long-term intelligence collection and analysis mission?” he said, citing issues like China and counterproliferation as examples of fields where U.S. intelligence had fallen behind.

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