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Al-Qaeda ‘essentially gone’ but affiliates remain a threat: U.S. officials

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A year after the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks is essentially gone but its affiliates remain a threat to America, U.S. counterterrorist officials say.

Core Qaeda’s new leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, still aspires to attack the U.S., but his Pakistan-based group is scrambling to survive, under fire from CIA drone strikes and laying low for fear of another U.S. raid. That has lessened the threat of another complex attack like a nuclear dirty bomb or a biological weapon, the officials say.

However, Qaeda’s loyal offshoots are still dangerous, especially Yemen’s Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. While not yet able to carry out complex attacks inside the U.S., such groups are capable of hitting Western targets overseas and are building armies and expertise while plotting violence, according to senior U.S. counterterrorist officials who briefed reporters Friday.

“Each will seek opportunities to strike Western interests in its operating area, but each group will have different intent and ability to execute those plans,” said Robert Cardillo, a deputy director at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The other officials were authorized to speak only on condition of anonymity.

The shift from a single, deadly group to a more amorphous threat may not seem much of an improvement. But the U.S. believes that the bin Laden raid and continued U.S. counterterrorist action have reduced the chance of a sophisticated, multipronged attack on the U.S. like the attacks of Sept. 11 or the deadly bombings in Madrid in 2004 and in London in 2005.

An attack with weapons of mass destruction - chemical, biological or nuclear - by any Qaeda-related terror group also seems less likely in the coming year, Cardillo said.

Qaeda’s Zawahri has not managed to harness multiple groups into a cohesive force focused on a single, catastrophic attack, officials said.

Qaeda’s key affiliates in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and North Africa have pledged allegiance to Zawahri but, unimpressed with his leadership, “have not offered the deference they gave bin Laden,” Cardillo said. Zawahri has a reputation as an abrasive manager and a less than charismatic speaker.

That loss of a single, charismatic voice likely means “multiple voices will provide inspiration for the movement,” leading to a bout of soul-searching as to what the splinter groups want to target and why, he added.

“There will be a vigorous debate about local versus global jihad within and among terror organizations,” he said.

‘Lone wolves’

While the danger of an elaborate, large-scale attack had diminished, the threat of so-called "lone wolves" inspired but not directed by Qaeda still present a challenge to counterterrorism efforts, officials said.

Attacks such as the shooting spree last month in France by militant gunman Mohamed Merah and a 2009 homegrown assault at Fort Hood in Texas are difficult to disrupt.

“People like Merah who act on their own, who equip themselves with weapons, who decide to act essentially on their own timing and at their own targets, are truly the most difficult targets we face,” a counterterrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.

Sidelined by Arab Spring

Qaeda has also found itself largely sidelined and wrong-footed by the popular uprisings of the Arab spring, with Bin Laden and his “theology” losing popular standing in Arab states, officials said.

However, the upheaval and toppling of regimes has left a vacuum where security services had once aggressively pursued militants.

“The replacement security organs are pretty immature,” the counterterrorism official said.

“That can be a relatively dangerous combination of more extremists on the street and fewer security officials to actually to watch them.”

In Syria, Qaeda hopes to exploit continuing violence to gain a foothold, the official said, adding that Qaeda is “interested in not only affecting the result but in contributing to the fighting.”

The official suggested that Qaeda leaders were seeking to avoid the mass killing of civilians that marked the network’s attacks in Iraq.

Apart from the affiliate in Yemen, other Qaeda offshoots in Iraq, Somalia and Africa’s Sahel region are more focused on local adversaries and shoring up their position, the official said.

The network’s branch in the arid Sahel region of Africa, known as Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, is seeking to take advantage of unrest in Mali after a March coup, fighting in alliance with Tuareg separatist rebels.

In Somalia, Qaeda-linked Shebab insurgents have lost “a great deal of their momentum and their popularity,” partly because of military defeats and their refusal to allow outside food aid into territory under their control, the official said.

The officials also noted that every time U.S. counterterrorist forces strike, they must take care to avoid everything from civilian casualties to hitting the wrong target, lest the blowback produce more enemies.

No silver bullet to destroy Qaeda: Panetta

In a related story, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Friday there is “no silver bullet” to completely destroy Qaeda but argued that killing Osama bin Laden helped set the network back.

Panetta spoke to reporters aboard a military plane on his way from Latin America, where he visited Colombia, Brazil and Chile to bolster bilateral military cooperation and regional security ties.

“Having been involved in the operations, even before we did bin Laden, it’s clear that there is no kind of silver bullet here to suddenly being able to destroy Qaeda, and that includes even going after bin Laden,” he said.

“But the way this works is that the more successful we are at taking down those who represent their spiritual and ideological leadership, the greater our ability to weaken their threat to this country and to other countries.”