U.S. security and intelligence officials say al Qaeda is severely weakened after losing Osama bin Laden, and some analysts go further, noting cautiously that the terrorist group may be in its death throes from the relentless U.S. and allied campaign to kill and capture its leaders and members.
The killing of bin Laden, after a 10-year manhunt, is prompting a reassessment of the threat posed by al Qaeda and whether groups loyal to the longtime senior commander will unify behind a new leader or fracture more.
A U.S. official said Tuesday that about 180 strikes have been carried out since early 2009, most using missiles from remotely piloted aircraft, that have killed about 1,200 militants.
In Pakistan alone, more than a dozen senior leaders have been killed or captured in recent years. U.S. intelligence agencies estimate that 12 of the 20 most senior al Qaeda leaders remain at large in the region.
White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon said the Obama administration late last year assessed al Qaeda to be “in the weakest shape it had been in since 2001.”
“And with … the assault on the compound in Pakistan and the killing of Osama bin Laden, they are even weaker still,” he said on NBC, noting that the administration is pressing ahead with the war against al Qaeda, even as it remains dangerous and “tries to survive.”
A senior U.S. intelligence official suggested Saturday that, while al Qaeda is a major threat, bin Laden’s demise could have a greater impact because intelligence from captured computer equipment after the May 1 commando raid in Pakistan showed the group lost its top commander, not just its inspirational leader.
Documents and videos revealed that, far from being a figurehead or spiritual leader, bin Laden was an active terrorist commander who provided strategic and tactical direction for attacks and plots, including targeting of the United States.
“What we now know … is that he had an operational and strategic role and a propaganda role for al Qaeda, which, again, makes the operation [May 2] more significant in terms of its effect on al Qaeda and its effect on them trying to develop additional leadership and carry out operations,” Mr. Donilon said on CNN.
A defense official involved in counterterrorism activities said the U.S. government, and the intelligence community specifically, have been too closely focused on al Qaeda’s top leaders.
As a result, there has been a failure to devote enough people and resources to understanding and countering what the official said was the greater strategic threat posed by radical Islamism in general.
Groups such as Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations are growing.
“While the U.S. government is focused on al Qaeda, the entire Middle East and South Asia are going Islamist,” the official said.
Another problem facing U.S. intelligence agencies in the aftermath of bin Laden’s death is likely to be what one former intelligence official called “tunnel vision.” That is when bureaucratic inertia on a single intelligence target prevents seeing the obvious, like the failure to predict the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the main target of the Cold War.
“There is a tendency to just do more of the same,” the former official said.
Another sign that al Qaeda is damaged was noted by a senior intelligence official on Saturday, commenting on the al Qaeda statement about bin Laden’s death.
“We expected that al Qaeda would issue a statement after his death. But it is noteworthy that the group did not announce a new leader, suggesting it is still trying to deal with bin Laden’s demise,” the intelligence official said.
Egyptian-born al Qaeda No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri, is the likely successor, the intelligence official said, but “there are strong indications that [al-Zawahri] is not popular within certain circles of the group.”
Several senior al Qaeda leaders could be named al Qaeda’s new “emir,” he said.
Reports from Asia this week stated that al Qaeda’s leadership council, or shura, is meeting secretly to pick a successor.
A report on al Qaeda and its affiliates produced recently by Jane’s Security and Military Intelligence Consulting stated that al Qaeda senior leaders such as al-Zawahri are no longer the main threat and, as a result, the group has decentralized.
“Under sustained pressure from U.S. and coalition forces in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, al Qaeda has been forced to rely to a greater degree on affiliate groups to sustain its pan-Islamic jihad,” said Tim Pippard, editor of the report, which was produced before bin Laden was killed.
Vanguard status at risk
With independent jihadist voices in the larger al Qaeda movement growing stronger and the lack of a new mass-casualty attack in the West, al Qaeda’s “status as vanguard of the transnational jihadist movement may dwindle away,” the report said.
A senior counterterrorism official said al Qaeda has been “badly damaged in recent years, but no one should think they’re no longer dangerous.”
“It’s absolutely imperative that we sustain intense pressure on them,” the official said. “None of the group’s members should feel safe, as bin Laden’s demise clearly shows.”
Of the affiliates, the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which includes American-born Anwar al-Awlaki among its key leaders, has emerged as a more dangerous group than the one headed by bin Ladin.
Other key al Qaeda affiliates include the Tariq-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, and the Haqqani Network in Afghanistan.
These groups have been unable to demonstrate the same kind of global reach as al Qaeda did in organizing the 19 hijackers who commandeered four commercial jets, three of which were flown as missiles into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The Haqqani Network, headed by Jalaluddin Haqqani, an associate of bin Laden from the 1980s, learned suicide car-bombing from al Qaeda and has used the technique widely in Afghanistan, but so far not outside the country.
The TTP was linked to the failed Times Square car-bombing, and AQAP has tried and failed twice to blow up U.S. airliners: once in December 2009, using a bomb hidden in a terrorists underwear aboard a Detroit-bound jet; and a second plot last year to ships bombs disguised as printer cartridges aboard a commercial cargo aircraft.
One of the continuing dangers of al Qaeda has been the group’s links to the Pakistani TTP, which helped set up covert terrorist-training camps in remote tribal areas of Pakistan.
Intelligence reports on these camps indicate that al Qaeda over the past several years has recruited and trained Western-looking jihadists who are thought to more easily pass through security screening.