In Wake of Bin Laden's death, Al Qaeda Remains Lethal

A year after leader's death, al Qaeda's Yemen affiliate is most feared by U.S. officials.

Osama Bin Laden

An undated file photo shows then-al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, in Afghanistan.

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In the year after Osama Bin Laden's death, the global terrorist syndicate he founded has undergone a makeover, becoming more regionally focused than ever before.

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When U.S. Navy SEALs entered Bin Laden's Pakistani hideout last May and killed the world's most wanted terrorist, al Qaeda "lost its most iconic, inspirational leader," says Robert Cardillo, deputy director of national intelligence. In the months since, many administration officials have described al Qaeda as "decimated" and "destroyed."

But other intelligence officials and experts say such pronouncements are premature. They see al Qaeda as a terror group that has greatly changed since last year, but one that remains lethal.

Al Qaeda's main hub, based for nearly 10 years in Afghanistan and Pakistan has lost prominence. The group's affiliates in Yemen, northern Africa, Iraq and Somalia have gained strength. U.S. intelligence officials believe those affiliates will conduct "the bulk of attacks" for the next few years, Cardillo says.

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Al Qaeda and its affiliate groups "are shifting away from global [plots] and to local," says one counterterrorism official.

Though they warn al Qaeda remains a threat to U.S. interests domestic and abroad, intelligence officials say the organization has been losing steam for some time.

"The death of Bin Laden was significant, but it contributed to an already clear path," says the counterterrorism official. "A year ago today, al Qaeda was already in decline."

Al Qaeda and its affiliates appear incapable of plotting and pulling off a "multi-pronged attack like 9/11," the official says. Still, "it is too soon to declare victory," he adds.

"The [jihadist] movement survives," the official says. "Al Qaeda is a resilient organization that has faced uncertainties in the past. They have waited us out in the past."

U.S. officials are most concerned with the group's Yemen-based cell, commonly referred to as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

The group is increasingly focused on carrying out attacks inside Yemen and other Middle Eastern nations, but "we are convinced they continue to plot against us," the counterterrorism official says. The Yemeni chapter of Al Qaeda has tried to attack the United States before, responsible for the attempted 2009 underwear bombing aboard a commerical airline bound for the U.S., along with a plot to blow up cargo planes.

"(Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) has very cleverly attacked us twice," the counterterrorism official says. "Their capability has increased since."

Another senior U.S. intelligence official notes the group has gained "street cred" by targeting America.

"I don't think we'll see it give up its goal of attacking the west," she says.

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"In terms of number of attacks, number of affiliates and allies, and territory gained, I'd say al Qaeda has had a slight increase in strength," says Seth Jones, a Rand Corp. political scientist. "Just look at the U.S. increasing its drone strikes in Yemen—if you're vanquishing your enemy, you don't ramp up your strikes."

The overall uptick in the terrorist syndicate's ability, however, "has not yet translated into lots of plotting against the U.S. homeland," Jones says. "But the trend lines of plots has tended to come in waves. The fact we're not seeing that now does not mean that's the way it'll be in a year or two."

Analysts say plots by Al Qaeda to strike inside the U.S. are down, but note the group carried out more attacks than ever in 2011.

"The level of Islamist violence around the world remains high. Islamist terrorism is widespread in Nigeria, Russia, Pakistan and Somalia. There are significant Islamist terror groups active in Thailand, the Philippines, India, Yemen, Kenya and Algeria," says Bernard Finel of the American Security Project.

"According to the U.S. National Counter-Terrorism Center, there were over 5,700 Islamist terror attacks around the world in 2011, a total which remains near historic highs," Finel says. "Any claims to success, in other words, have to be muted. There have been successes, but we are not yet successful in our struggle against Islamist terror."