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Intelligence Chiefs: Al-Qaida Weaker, But Still Committed

By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 13, 2011 – Ten years after 9/11, al-Qaida is weaker and the U.S. intelligence community is more effective, the nation’s top intelligence officials told Congress today.

CIA Director David P. Petraeus and Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper spoke before a joint hearing of the House and Senate Intelligence committees about how U.S. intelligence efforts and al-Qaida’s capabilities have changed since 9/11.

Petraeus, in his first appearance as CIA director after retiring as an Army general from the job of leading U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, said a decade of war has thinned the ranks of al-Qaida’s leaders, creating a “window of opportunity” against the core terrorist organization.

“Today, as a result of sustained counterterrorism efforts -- a substantial number with our partners in Pakistan and Afghanistan -- the core part of al-Qaida’s organization is much weaker and less capable than when it attacked us on 9/11,” he said.

The successful operation against Osama bin Laden demonstrated the value of intelligence integration, the directors agreed.

Petraeus said bin Laden had been “iconic,” the sole al-Qaida leader since the group’s founding. While Ayman al-Zawahiri succeeded him in June, much of the group’s support base finds Zawahiri less compelling as a leader, the CIA director added.

Analysts expect Zawahiri will have more difficulty than did bin Laden in maintaining the group’s cohesion and motivation in the face of continued pressure, Petraeus said.

The group’s rank of “top lieutenants” has lost many of its plotters, paramilitary commanders, trainers and bomb-makers, he said, and the organization is struggling to find qualified replacements.

“These setbacks have shaken al-Qaida’s sense of security in Pakistan’s tribal areas,” Petraeus said.

With the core group’s focus diverted from plotting against the west to ensuring its own survival, he said, some mid-level and rank-and-file al-Qaida members may seek safe haven in Afghanistan or outside the South Asia region.

“The upshot is that it will be more difficult for al-Qaida to attract and accommodate would-be jihadists wanting to travel to the tribal areas of Pakistan,” he said.

If the United States and its allies are to successfully exploit al-Qaida’s window of vulnerability, “we must maintain the pressure,” he said.

Petraeus cautioned that al-Qaida and its affiliates still pose a very real threat, and the group still seeks what he termed one of its principle goals: “Forcing the United States and a number of our allies to retreat from the world stage … [to] clear the way for overthrowing governments in the Islamic world, and for the destruction of Israel.”

Al-Qaida remains committed to and can still launch attacks against the United States and Europe, he said.

“Increasingly, in fact, we see signs of al-Qaida’s efforts to carry out relatively small attacks, that would nonetheless generate fear and create the need for costly security improvements,” he added.

As al-Qaida’s core has weakened, its affiliates and sympathizers outside South Asia have taken the initiative, he said.

“Working with our local partners to cooperate against these affiliates will continue to be crucial to … our overall efforts to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida’s global network,” he said.

While linked to the central al-Qaida structure, these groups largely operate independently and have their own command structures, resource bases and agendas, he noted.

“Our nation faces a serious threat from these groups, particularly from those based in Yemen, home to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula,” Petraeus said.

The Yemen-based group has emerged as the most dangerous node in the global jihad, he said, with two attempted attacks against the United States since December 2009.

Since May, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has launched an offensive against the Yemeni government in parts of southern Yemen, expelling many government forces from the region and increasing its members’ freedom of movement, he said.

Petraeus said counterterrorism cooperation between the United States and Yemen has improved in recent months, however, which is crucial to denying the group the safe haven it seeks to establish.

Southern Somalia also is one of the world’s most significant terrorist havens, and the al-Qaida affiliate there, al-Shabab, is larger and better funded than most extremist groups, he said.

“It has attracted and trained hundreds of foreign fighters, including scores of Americans and dozens from other western countries,” he added.

Suicide bombings in Uganda last year demonstrated al-Shabab’s ability to operate outside Somalia, but sustained pressure on the relatively small group of leaders linked to the core al-Qaida group could persuade the organization to turn away from global jihad, Petraeus said.

He noted both Harun Fazul, the top al-Qaida operative in East Africa, and the al-Shabab “mastermind” behind the Uganda bombings were killed in June, while African Union troops recently drove al-Shabab members out of Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu.

“Nonetheless, we must continue our work to reduce al-Shabab’s capabilities,” he said.

Yet another al-Qaida affiliate, al-Qaida in the lands of the Islamic Maghreb, has targeted western interests throughout northern and western Africa, while battling security forces in Algeria, Mali and Mauritania, Petraeus said.

“We are working with our regional partners and France to counter AQIM, and those efforts have helped to prevent a significant attack by AQIM against western interests since late 2007,” he added.

Nigeria and Iraq also are among the areas threatened by al-Qaida affiliates, he said, while regional government forces in Southeast Asia, including Bali and India, have killed or captured many terrorist leaders there.

“The CIA’s global campaign against al-Qaida and its affiliates requires both offensive and defensive measures, and they will need to be sustained over a long period to be effective,” he said.

CIA officers work closely with international partners to thwart terrorist plots before they can be carried out, and have succeeded in preventing several attacks, Petraeus said.

“We owe these successes to improved tradecraft resulting from the fusion of intelligence disciplines, to tight integration with other agencies and the military, to the sharing of intelligence with foreign partners, and to [congressional] support,” he said.

Over the past decade, CIA operatives and analysts have forged more effective relationships, resulting in better information flow and new insights into how and where terrorists operate, Petraeus said.

Cooperation with other intelligence organizations and with law enforcement agencies also is closer than ever, he added.

“We continue to work with [the Office of the Director, National Intelligence] and National Counterterrorism Center to … improve the application of community resources,” he said.

Clapper said intelligence integration across government is greatly improved since 9/11.

“The intelligence community today is producing and sharing more and better streams of intelligence,” he said. “We are connecting people to people, people to data, and data to data through enhanced collaboration, automation and connectivity.”

Clapper said the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency, Department of Homeland Security, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, National Counterterrorism Center, State Department and Treasury Department all contribute to the nation’s overall counter-terrorism effort.

Intelligence information today can be discovered, evaluated and integrated faster and more comprehensively than ever before, he said, while remaining consistent with privacy laws and the protection of civil liberties.

“We have put in place remarkable capabilities and achieved significant successes,” Clapper said. “The nature of terrorism, though … [makes] it impossible to guarantee that every planned attack will be thwarted and every plot disrupted.”

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