The former head of CIA intelligence said Wednesday that recent assessments of al Qaeda being on the verge of strategic defeat may be too optimistic and warned not to start "high-fiving each other" over the high-profile slayings of the terror group's leaders.
John McLaughlin, speaking at the Aspen Institute in Washington, pushed back against a series of recent official pronouncements suggesting that the so-called core of al Qaeda — based on the Afghan Pakistan border — is "back on its heels."
"We run the risk of underestimating [Ayman al-] Zawahiri, the No. 2 leader," said Mr. McLaughlin, retired in 2004 as deputy CIA director for intelligence.
Al-Zawahiri, who took charge of al Qaeda after Osama bin Laden was killed in a U.S. raid in Pakistan in May, "is not a charismatic leader as bin Laden was," Mr. McLaughlin said. "No one is going to be printing off Zawahiri T-shirts.
"But he is probably tougher-minded and more disciplined … This guy has prison credits [from his jailing in Egypt after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat], he has street credits, he's ruthless."
Al-Zawahiri was the member of al Qaeda's senior leadership who was "the one most interested in what worries us most, which is a WMD [weapon of mass destruction] attack," he added.
Mr. McLaughlin noted there is no evidence among the material recovered from bin Laden's compound of any working plots against the United States.
"Perhaps it wasn't there," he said, "or maybe in stuffing all that material into duffle bags, the SEAL team … didn't pick up that one thing. You can't be completely confident there isn't something still hatching here."
"We shouldn't be high-fiving each other," he said, despite the senior al Qaeda leaders who had been killed since the bin Laden raid.
Mr. McLaughlin, who spent more than three decades at CIA, said his doubts are driven in part by the hard lessons of a career in what he called the "gloomy business" of intelligence. He jokingly described an intelligence officer as "someone who, when he smells flowers, turns and looks around for the coffin."
There is also an element of contrarianism in his warnings about al Qaeda, he acknowledged: "I always get nervous when we all talk about [something] the same way. That's when you get surprised."
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