Al Qaeda shadow of former self 10 years after 9/11

WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – Al Qaeda’s core leadership  is badly wounded and almost certainly incapable of mounting  another attack like the one on Sept. 11, 2001, in New York and  Washington, according to U.S. and European security officials.

But even as the threat of spectacular, coordinated  mass-casualty attacks by al Qaeda seems to have faded, it has  been replaced by new worries — the network’s violent spinoff  groups and individual radical “lone wolves,” to name two.

In an illustration of such concerns, U.S. officials said on  Thursday there was a credible but unconfirmed threat involving  Washington and New York ahead of tomorrow’s 10th anniversary of  the attacks on those cities.

Official have said that intelligence gathered from the raid  that killed Osama bin Laden last May highlighted the al Qaeda  leader’s persistent interest in attacking the United States  around the anniversary of the 2001 attacks. But it is unclear  if those plans ever evolved beyond aspiration.

“AQ Central has never been weaker, they have been pounded  into submission” by CIA drone attacks, said Roger Cressey, a  former top White House counterterrorism official, referring to  al Qaeda by its initials.

“If the threat was prioritized as AQ Central, the  affiliates and self-radicalized individuals in that order after  9/11, the opposite order is true today,” Cressey said.

The near-demise of al Qaeda, the Islamic militant network  that grew out of the fight by bin Laden and fellow Arabs to  expel Soviet troops from Afghanistan in the 1980s, goes beyond  bin Laden’s killing by U.S. forces in Pakistan.

The latest milestone was the killing last month in a U.S.  drone strike in Pakistan of Atiyah abd al-Rahman, a Libyan whom  U.S. officials called the No. 2 to Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahri,  bin Laden’s successor as al Qaeda chief.

Rahman was the latest target of the dramatically  intensified U.S. drone campaign which, for all the controversy  it has sparked in Pakistan and elsewhere, has become a lethal  weapon for which al Qaeda leaders have offered no adequate  answer.

A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity,  said part of the significance of Rahman’s demise was that  unlike bin Laden, he tried to operate below the radar of  Western spy agencies. Yet he was still identified, located and  killed.

The vacuum created by the disintegration of al Qaeda’s  central command is being filled by Qaeda “franchises” —  spinoff or copycat branches of bin Laden’s original network,  counterterrorism officials say.

“The movement fueled by a common ideology has morphed into  more of an AQ hydra, with the old core weakened but new  franchises and inspired individuals taking on the global jihadi  mantle,” said Juan Zarate, a White House counterterrorism  adviser to former President George W. Bush, referring to the  multi-headed serpent of Greek mythology.

Al Qaeda propagandists and apologists have also established  a formidable presence on the Internet to promote the group’s  ideology and indoctrinate militant wannabes.

A worrisome development is the proliferation of individual  violent militants — the “lone wolves” — who operate unseen by  intelligence agencies and police and can create mayhem with a  carful of home-made explosives or guns. The result is a lower  risk of future large conflagrations but a growing threat of  smaller attacks that could be harder to detect and thwart.

“Future attacks against America will be less complex, less  well organized, less likely to succeed, less lethal if they do  succeed. They will just be more numerous,” said retired General  Michael Hayden, who led the CIA and National Security Agency.
Bruce Riedel, a former senior CIA analyst who has advised  Obama on counterterrorism policy, sounded a note of caution  about the original al Qaeda. “Al Qaeda’s old core is badly  wounded but still has powerful allies like the Pakistani  Taliban that can serve as force multipliers,” Riedel said.

Riedel said the next iteration of al Qaeda may be a  proliferation of militants “trained for one-time missions to  hemorrhage the U.S.” — people like Faisal Shahzad.

The Pakistan-born U.S. citizen radicalized himself  through  the Internet, spent a few days with militants in Pakistani  tribal areas, then tried last year to attack New York’s crowded  Times Square with an incompetently built car bomb.

Al Qaeda’s core group headed by Zawahri retains a training  and propaganda capability, U.S. and European officials say.
Its resources for training field operatives are nothing  like the system of relatively sophisticated paramilitary  encampments it operated in Afghanistan before the 2001 attacks.  At best, officials said, al Qaeda’s central command can  organize small-scale, temporary and discreet training sessions  in remaining safe-havens in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

The results of such efforts are mixed. Shahzad trained for  a week or two with suspected al Qaeda militants in North  Waziristan. But he failed to build a gasoline-based bomb that  could actually explode. He was arrested at New York’s JFK  Airport as he tried to flee the United States.

Al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen (known as Al Qaeda in the  Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP) and north Africa (known as Al Qaeda  in the Islamic Maghreb) are seen as the best-organized  franchises of bin Laden’s original network.

Somalia-based al Shabaab, which has recruited native  Somalis in the United States and has growing ties to the Yemen  affiliate, is also seen as a major concern.

The Yemen-based group is viewed with particular wariness  because it has shown the capability for imaginative attack  tactics such as underwear and printer-cartridge bombs. It also  has been working, intelligence reports say, on a grisly  innovation: bombs that would be surgically implanted inside a  militants’ body to deceive security screeners.

Its ambitions sparked particular concern in the U.S.  government because of the role in it played by Anwar al-Awlaki,  an American-born imam who U.S. officials believe has built a  substantial following in the United States and other Western  nations through English-language postings on the Internet.

A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity,  said Awlaki “pulled back” from public activities in recent  months amid growing interest in him by U.S. and European  intelligence agencies. Awlaki and others in the group have  “isolated themselves” from the Internet and other electronic  devices to improve their security, the official said.

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