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Al Qaeda could try to reconstitute itself, but they would do so at their own peril given the intense pressure they and other terrorist groups are facing in Afghanistan,” said Pentagon Press Secretary George Little.

A more immediate worry is the threat posed by the expanding presence of al Qaeda and affiliated groups in Yemen, Somalia and across a broad swath of North Africa, where it is thought that al Qaeda-linked militants may have been responsible for the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

U.S. and Afghan officials say al Qaeda also has been building ties with like-minded Islamic militant groups present in Afghanistan, including Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is blamed for the November 2008 rampage in Mumbai that killed 166 people, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is present in the north.

Ahmadullah Mowahed, a member of the Afghan parliament from the eastern province of Nuristan, along the Pakistan border, said he fears the departure of American combat forces will open the way for the Taliban and al Qaeda to overwhelm the provincial government.

“As soon as they leave, the eyes of al Qaeda will quickly focus on Nuristan,” he said.

U.S. analysts say there is reason for concern that al Qaeda is down, but not out.

“They’ve been hit hard in a few cases, but they definitely are involved in the fight – absolutely,” said Seth G. Jones, a senior political scientist at Rand Corp.

Mr. Jones, a former adviser to the commander of U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan, recently returned from a trip to eastern Afghanistan. There he learned that al Qaeda’s support network has expanded and its relations with groups such as the Pakistani-based Haqqani network are strong.

“That’s a very serious concern because that kind of environment would allow al Qaeda to continue to operate, at least at a small level, because it’s a workable environment for them, he said.