Wall Street Journal
April 28, 2012
WASHINGTON—The chances of a Sept. 11-style attack have substantially decreased as a result of U.S. counterterrorism operations, according to senior U.S. intelligence officials who provided an assessment Friday of the state of al Qaeda a year after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
A high-casualty attack by a foreign terrorist group is “unlikely in the next year,” said Robert Cardillo, a top official with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. “That’s a result of the counterterrorism pressure that’s been applied.”
The biggest threats to U.S. security no longer stem from the core al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan, and instead have moved to al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen and the hard-to-identify lone supporters of al Qaeda’s ideology who could choose to mount their own attacks anywhere around the globe, intelligence and counterterrorism officials said.
Bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al Zawahiri, hasn’t earned the same kind of passionate following that bin Laden commanded, the officials said. They estimated that al Qaeda’s core membership now numbers in the low hundreds, and al Qaeda’s Yemen branch, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, in the mid- to high hundreds.
Three officials spoke to reporters from the same room in the White House complex in which President Barack Obama and his top national security aides watched the bin Laden raid unfold nearly a year ago, a senior U.S. official said.
Republicans have accused the White House of playing up the success of the bin Laden raid. But the assessment of a weakened, though not defeated, core al Qaeda is consistent with views of top intelligence officials and some independent analysts.
Some outside counterterrorism analysts, however, add that while al Qaeda is unquestionably down at the moment, the success could be fleeting. “Not answered is: What happens if [counterterrorism] pressure goes off in Afghanistan and Taliban come back?” said James Carafano, of the conservative Heritage Foundation. “There is a bit of rosy scenario going on here, I think—not inaccurate, just incomplete.”
Officials said an attack with chemical, biological or radiological weapons is unlikely in the next year. “It’s really hard to imagine al Qaeda core gathering together the resources, the talent and the money to mount another 9/11-type of attack,” said one.
Al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch remains a major concern for U.S. officials, they say, because it is the most capable of pulling off an attack against the U.S., despite the death of a key leader last fall The group is expected to maintain its ambitions to attack the U.S., according to a senior U.S. intelligence official., because that “gives it kind of street cred in many ways.”
The Arab Spring uprisings have dealt setbacks to both al Qaeda and counterterrorism efforts in the region, officials say. While democratic uprisings counter al Qaeda’s jihadi message, civil unrest has created opportunities for local al Qaeda affiliates to gain ground.
In Syria, U.S. officials expect al Qaeda’s Iraqi branch to attempt to mount operations, though they say it will face challenges. Al Qaeda’s core leadership “was caught somewhat flatfooted on the Arab Spring,” a senior U.S. intelligence official said, but with Syria they have had more time to plan and will try to guide al Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate there.