New assessments of Al Qaeda by the top US counter-terrorism experts offer grounds for both optimism and concern a year after President Obama took office.
The Washington Post quotes officials, as saying that the Al Qaeda's ability to wage mass-casualty terrorism has been undercut by relentless US attacks on the network's leadership, finances and training camps. But it also warns that despite this weakened state, the group has shifted tactics to focus on small-scale operations that are far harder to detect and disrupt.The deadly November shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, and the failed Christmas Day attempt to bomb an airliner are both examples of the low-tech approach.
The paper says this has raised the fear level in Washington and across the country. Some terrorism experts say the worst could be still to come as a wounded jihadist movement thrashes about in search of a victory. "The noose is tightening, and Al Qaeda's leadership is accelerating efforts that were probably in place anyway," said Andy Johnson, former staff director of the Senate intelligence committee and now national security director for the Washington think tank Third Way.
In testimony before two congressional panels last week, top US intelligence officials said the campaign has shaken Al Qaeda's core leadership. "Intelligence confirms that they are finding it difficult to be able to engage in the planning and the command-and-control operations to put together a large attack," CIA Director Leon Panetta said Tuesday in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
But intelligence officials also warned lawmakers of worrisome new evidence of Al Qaeda's ability to adapt. In an annual "threat assessment" to Congress, spy agencies described the emerging threat as more geographically dispersed and also low-tech, favoring lone operatives and conventional explosives.
Director of National Intelligence Dennis C Blair, who presented the assessment to House and Senate panels, said the attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 over Detroit is emblematic of an evolving threat.Blair testified that he thought another attempted strike by terrorists was "certain" in the next six months. Terrorism experts and administration officials have described the airplane bombing attempt as a wake-up call that helped expose gaps in security that are now being addressed.