One year after Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden, a weakened, fragmented al Qaeda is collaborating with other terrorist and militant groups to target and attack U.S. and Western interests abroad, intelligence officials say.
Aggressive counterterrorism efforts - such as drone strikes and economic sanctions - have crippled the global terrorist network's ability to replace competent leaders, attract recruits and plan devastating attacks, said John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism.
"Al Qaeda is losing - badly," Mr. Brennan said during a speech Monday at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "[But] as the al Qaeda core falters, it continues to look to its affiliates and adherents to carry on its murderous cause."
U.S. intelligence officials who recently briefed reporters on al Qaeda said bin Laden's death removed the terrorist group's most effective and inspirational leader and hobbled its capacity for staging a complicated assault. But they said the threat from al Qaeda affiliates has increased.
"The organization that brought us 9/11 is essentially gone," a senior U.S. counterterrorism official said on the condition of anonymity, but "it's really too soon to declare victory."
Affiliates such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al Qaeda in Iraq, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al-Shabab in Somalia carry out the bulk of attacks, said Robert T. Cardillo, deputy director of national intelligence.
In Nigeria, the al Qaeda affiliate Boko Haram has increased its profile by attacking U.N. offices in August and bombing churches in December.
The future of al Qaeda
Officials ranked al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen as the top threat of the affiliates.
In 2009, the group inspired Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner with a bomb concealed in his underwear. In 2010, the group claimed responsibility for a failed cargo-bomb plot involving two planes headed for Chicago.
"They are not only intent on attacking the United States," said a senior U.S. counterterrorism official, "but we are convinced they continue to plot against us. Their rhetoric, their propaganda is both widespread and effective."
Mr. Cardillo said regional affiliates "will surpass the remnants of core al Qaeda remaining in Pakistan and seek opportunities to strike Western interests in its operating area. ... But each group will have different intent and ability to execute those plans."
To combat the threat posed by affiliates, the U.S. has expanded its drone campaign in places such as Yemen, its support for local governments and its work with local security forces to weaken the groups, said counterterrorism analyst Daniel L. Byman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and NATO are winding down combat operations in Afghanistan, where they have ousted the Taliban-controlled government that sheltered al Qaeda before, during and after the terrorist group's 2001 attacks.
About 100 al Qaeda members are believed to be still operating in the country, and most international combat troops are expected to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
The key challenge for the West over the next few years will be to balance aggressive counterterrorism operations against the risk of galvanizing new fronts for the terrorist movement, Mr. Cardillo said.
One such front is in Syria, where officials say al Qaeda in Iraq is trying to make inroads in the popular uprising against President Bashar Assad's autocratic regime.
Little support in Arab world
"Al Qaeda is interested in not only affecting the result, but in contributing to the fighting," a senior U.S. counterterrorism official said.
However, the official said the terrorist movement has made few strides among Arab Spring protesters who have sought to overthrow longtime dictatorships - including in Syria, where there are few obvious sympathizers to al Qaeda's cause.
A recent poll conducted as part of the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project found overwhelmingly unfavorable views of al Qaeda in Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president last year after a popular uprising.
Negative views of the terrorist network also were found in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and areas of Pakistan, where bin Laden was killed in hiding in May 2011.
"As these new governments take real steps to address public demands for political participation and democratic institutions and remain committed to [counterterrorism] efforts, we judge that core al Qaeda and the global jihadist movement will experience a strategic setback," Mr. Cardillo said.
He warned, however, that any prolonged instability or missed promises by the new governments would give al Qaeda and its affiliates more time to establish networks, attract support and potentially engage in operations with less scrutiny from local security services.
Within U.S. borders, officials said, a mass attack by a foreign group using chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons would be unlikely within the next year but the threat would come from "lone wolf" attackers or small groups not formally affiliated with al Qaeda but inspired by its ideology.
"It's more than just one person. It's an idea. It's a concept, and it's a concept that exists in many parts of the broader world today," said Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
While officials say al Qaeda's new leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, is not as inspirational as bin Laden, it is much too early to count out core al Qaeda.
"Al Qaeda is a resilient organization that's faced incredible difficulties in the past after leaving Afghanistan," the senior U.S. counterterrorism official said. "It was patient. It managed to wait us out, and they're clearly attempting to do that again right now."
"Despite the great progress we've made against al Qaeda, it would be a mistake to believe this threat has passed," Mr. Brennan said.
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