Al Qaeda’s capability to conduct major attacks has “eroded significantly” as a result of the war on terrorism, but the terrorist group has not been destroyed, according to U.S. intelligence officials and security specialists.
More than two years after the September 11 attacks, al Qaeda “is battered, but they remain dangerous. They’re still recruiting jihadists into the fold,” said a U.S. official with access to intelligence reports.
“Osama bin Laden and the group’s dwindling top leadership are increasingly isolated from the organization’s wider network,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Security specialists think al Qaeda, in large measure, has lost the ability to carry out major attacks that can kill thousands, utilizing a centralized command that, in the past, has ordered attacks from places such as Afghanistan.
Instead, the group, which still operates in small clandestine cells, has become even more decentralized.
No new al Qaeda-linked groups have formed in recent months, but some groups that are linked to al Qaeda by Islamist ideology are becoming greater threats, notably in Southeast Asia, the Persian Gulf and East Africa.
“We remain concerned about continued threats from al Qaeda’s regional networks that appear to be growing more autonomous,” said the official, adding that some of the groups “are operating more independently and they’re more dangerous.”
Among the current al Qaeda offshoots identified by U.S. intelligence agencies are:
Abu Sayyaf group (Philippines)
Gamat al-Islamiya (Egypt)
Jemaah Islamiah (Southeast Asia)
Al Zarqawi (Iraq)
Ansar al-Islam group (northern and central Iraq)
Al-Ittihad al-Islami, known as AIAI (Somalia).
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told reporters this week that another terrorist attack is likely in the future and that al Qaeda would like to carry one out.
As for speculation that al Qaeda is preparing another big attack, Mr. Mueller said, “If you look back at attacks that al Qaeda has undertaken over the years, they tend to be the more spectacular — the Bali bombings were suicide bombings, Istanbul was a suicide bombing. Truck bombs are still a threat, and I would say, al Qaeda would very much relish another very high-profile attack within the U.S. in which numerous U.S. citizens would be killed.”
“We have disrupted their capability, but there are still persons out there who have that capability,” he said.
Small-scale al Qaeda training camps are thought to be operating in Somalia and in Pakistan, U.S. officials said.
Since the launch of military operations in Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, more than three-quarters of al Qaeda’s top leaders have been captured or killed. Several key players, including Khalid Sheik Mohammad and Indonesian-born Hambali, are in U.S. custody and have been providing information on the group’s activities.
However, the two main leaders, bin Laden and his chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, remain at large, despite a major manhunt involving thousands of U.S. intelligence and military special-operations forces around the world.
Both top al Qaeda leaders are thought to be in hiding somewhere along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
U.S. officials said the threat of a major al Qaeda attack emerged over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, when the Bush administration raised the threat level to orange or “heightened” alert.
The intelligence prompting the alert was specific and indicated that al Qaeda terrorists planned to use hijacked aircraft in suicide attacks.
Officials said there also were intelligence reports indicating that al Qaeda planned to break the weapons of mass destruction barrier by conducting an attack using a radiological bomb — a conventional explosive laced with radioactive material.
However, the weeks since Christmas passed without an attack, raising some questions about whether al Qaeda still is capable of conducting a major attack.
Mr. Mueller said the holiday threat was based on “relatively specific information” of al Qaeda attack plans.
“Al Qaeda is known to be fluid in its setting of the timetable, so what you can do is go back and re-evaluate, and once you do that, we are still in a position where we have substantial concern about an attack from al Qaeda,” he said.
More than 3,000 al Qaeda members, defined as followers of bin Laden-style Islamist extremism, have been detained around the world. Many were trained in Afghanistan at one of the more than 23 terrorist training camps that operated in the country until the ouster of the ruling Taliban militia in late 2001.
How many members the group has today is not known.
Larry Johnson, a former U.S. government counterterrorism official, said al Qaeda today probably has about 500 core members left over from its 2001 peak.
“I think al Qaeda is significantly weakened from where they were,” Mr. Johnson said. “They are trying to use the invasion of Iraq like they used the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan [to recruit], but it doesn’t appear they’re having great success.”
Mr. Johnson said al Qaeda attacks in areas with large Islamic populations — Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iraq — have cost the group important local support.
The group has “the air of Hitler in his bunker” at the end of World War II, he said.