Weaker al Qaeda still plots payback for bin Laden death

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Al Qaeda was and is our No. 1 enemy,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said last week. “So it’s a part of his foreign policy record, obviously, but it’s also part of a very serious endeavor to keep our country safe.”

How safe remains in question.

U.S. officials say al Qaeda is less able to carry out a complex attack like Sept. 11, and they rule out al Qaeda’s ability to attack with weapons of mass destruction in the coming year. These officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they say publicly identifying themselves could make them a target of the terrorist group.

U.S. counterterrorist forces have killed roughly half of al Qaeda’s top 20 leaders since the raid. That includes U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, killed by a drone in Yemen last September, less than six months after bin Laden’s death.

Only a few of the original al Qaeda team remain, and most of the new names on the U.S. target lists are relative unknowns, officials say.

“The last terror attack was seven years ago in London, and they haven’t had any major attacks in the U.S.” saidPeter Bergen, an al Qaeda expert who once met bin Laden. “They are recruiting no-hopers and dead-enders.”

Yet Mr. Zawahri is still out there. Though constantly hunted, he has managed to release 13 audio and video messages to followers since bin Laden’s death, a near-record rate of release, according to the IntelCenter, a private intelligence firm. He has urged followers to seize on the unrest left by the Arab Spring to build organizations and influence in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere, and to back rebels in Syria — a call that U.S. intelligence officials say is being heeded.

U.S. attempts to deliver a “knockout punch” to Mr. Zawahri and his followers in Pakistan have been hamstrung by a breakdown in relations with Pakistan’s government over the bin Laden raid.

Pakistani officials saw the raid as a violation of their sovereignty, made worse by a U.S. friendly-fire attack that killed almost two dozen Pakistani troops on the border with Afghanistan last fall. Pakistan’s Parliament called for a redrafting of what the U.S. is allowed to do, and where.

CIA drone strikes in Pakistan’s border area continue but are limited to a relatively small area of the tribal region.

“Our efforts are focused on one small kill box, and we’ve hit them hard, but they still maintain a vital network throughout Pakistan” says Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal, which tracks U.S. counterterrorism efforts worldwide.

Al Qaeda also takes shelter in Pakistan’s urban areas, as shown by the bin Laden raid, and the CIA’s efforts to search those areas is often blocked by the Pakistani intelligence service.

U.S. officials say they believe factions within the agency shelter and even fund al Qaeda’s senior leaders and related militant groups such as the Haqqani network, which attacks U.S. troops in Afghanistan, from their Pakistani safe haven. Pakistan denies the charge.

Afghanistan is the temporary home to up to 100 al Qaeda fighters at any single time, U.S. officials say, adding that a steady series of U.S. special operations raids is essential to keeping them out. With the withdrawal of U.S. forces, U.S. counterterrorism officials fear al Qaeda could return.

By the numbers, al Qaeda’s greatest presence is still greatest in Iraq, where intelligence officials estimate up to a 1,000 fighters have refocused their campaign from striking now-absent U.S. troops to hitting the country’s Shiite-dominated government.

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