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U.S. Intelligence Chiefs say Al-Qaida weaker but still committed
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
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
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
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,
“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
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
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
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,
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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