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The next generation

Most officials interviewed for this article, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, credited Mr. Obama with publicly correcting his assessment of the evolving threat posed by al Qaeda during a major speech this year.

The problem, they said, is that he did so only after winning a second term. Intelligence that the president wove into a May 23 speech at the National Defense University was, in fact, well-known among analysts at America’s major spy agencies nearly a year earlier, the officials said.

While Mr. Obama crowed on the campaign trail about al Qaeda’s demise, the intelligence community was privately providing the president, along with Republican opponent Mitt Romney and several top congressional leaders, a much more complicated view of the terrorist movement, whose name in Arabic means “the base.”

The consensus was that, yes, al Qaeda’s traditional central leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan had suffered serious losses and had less day-to-day influence, but the terrorist group was advancing quickly on a new and dangerous path.

From David H. Petraeus, the CIA director at the time, to Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, there were numerous private warnings during the summer and fall of 2012 that al Qaeda in the post-bin Laden world was “metastasizing” from its original core to much smaller but strong offshoots as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen; al-Shabab in Somalia; al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Libya, Algeria and Mali; Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria; Boko Haram in Nigeria; and less-defined groups with growing operational capabilities in Africa and the Middle East.

Sources familiar with these offshoots said the classified briefings stressed that many of them were driven by local agendas — such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s desire to overthrow the pro-U.S. government in Yemen — but at times remained in contact with al Qaeda’s new central leadership of al-Zawahri. The Egyptian doctor, who succeeded bin Laden, was believed to be hiding in the Wild West-like FATA region.

A central point of the briefings was that the offshoots were gaining money, lethal knowledge and a mounting determination to strike U.S. and Western interests. “The terrorist threat to the West was clearly shifting away from the FATA,” one senior intelligence official told The Times.

“In mid-2012, al Qaeda’s decimated senior leadership in Pakistan could only try to set the strategic direction for the increasingly decentralized global affiliates,” the senior intelligence official said. “At that time, [al Qaeda‘s] core was providing overall guidance but wasn’t calling the operational shots outside of South Asia.”

There were also varying views within the intelligence community over the level of influence exerted by al-Zawahri — long understood to be al Qaeda’s operational mastermind.

A second senior intelligence official told The Times that “from intercepts and allies, we knew last year that al Qaeda central was still exerting influence on these offshoots even as political statements came out saying the leadership was on the run and losing control.

“We believed al Qaeda had simply transferred operational capabilities to these affiliates, knowing how much communications were being monitored,” the official said. “But they still were determined to strike us, mostly through these affiliates.”

The whole truth?

Questions about al-Zawahri’s reach quickly became a hallmark of the intelligence community’s attempts to make sense of the deadly September 2012 attacks on the U.S. diplomatic post and secret CIA station in Benghazi.

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