U.S. security and intelligence officials say al Qaeda is severely weakened after losing Osama bin Laden, and some analysts go further, noting cautiously that the terrorist group may be in its death throes from the relentless U.S. and allied campaign to kill and capture its leaders and members.
The killing of bin Laden, after a 10-year manhunt, is prompting a reassessment of the threat posed by al Qaeda and whether groups loyal to the longtime senior commander will unify behind a new leader or fracture more.
A U.S. official said Tuesday that about 180 strikes have been carried out since early 2009, most using missiles from remotely piloted aircraft, that have killed about 1,200 militants.
In Pakistan alone, more than a dozen senior leaders have been killed or captured in recent years. U.S. intelligence agencies estimate that 12 of the 20 most senior al Qaeda leaders remain at large in the region.
White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon said the Obama administration late last year assessed al Qaeda to be “in the weakest shape it had been in since 2001.”
“And with … the assault on the compound in Pakistan and the killing of Osama bin Laden, they are even weaker still,” he said on NBC, noting that the administration is pressing ahead with the war against al Qaeda, even as it remains dangerous and “tries to survive.”
A senior U.S. intelligence official suggested Saturday that, while al Qaeda is a major threat, bin Laden’s demise could have a greater impact because intelligence from captured computer equipment after the May 1 commando raid in Pakistan showed the group lost its top commander, not just its inspirational leader.
Documents and videos revealed that, far from being a figurehead or spiritual leader, bin Laden was an active terrorist commander who provided strategic and tactical direction for attacks and plots, including targeting of the United States.
“What we now know … is that he had an operational and strategic role and a propaganda role for al Qaeda, which, again, makes the operation [May 2] more significant in terms of its effect on al Qaeda and its effect on them trying to develop additional leadership and carry out operations,” Mr. Donilon said on CNN.
A defense official involved in counterterrorism activities said the U.S. government, and the intelligence community specifically, have been too closely focused on al Qaeda’s top leaders.
As a result, there has been a failure to devote enough people and resources to understanding and countering what the official said was the greater strategic threat posed by radical Islamism in general.
Groups such as Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations are growing.
“While the U.S. government is focused on al Qaeda, the entire Middle East and South Asia are going Islamist,” the official said.
Another problem facing U.S. intelligence agencies in the aftermath of bin Laden’s death is likely to be what one former intelligence official called “tunnel vision.” That is when bureaucratic inertia on a single intelligence target prevents seeing the obvious, like the failure to predict the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the main target of the Cold War.