U.S. Sees Al Qaeda as Incapable of Hitting Homeland Targets

A year after Bin Laden's death, U.S. officials say terror group's core is focused mostly on Afghanistan.

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Pfc. Garrick Carlton of Sacramento, Calif., with the U.S. Army's Bravo Company of the 25th Infantry Division, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment based in Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, patrols up a mountain looking for an insurgent fighting position in Kunar province, Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan appear primarily focused on disrupting the Afghanistan conflict, and have lost the ability to plot attacks on the U.S. homeland, intelligence officials and experts say.

The U.S. has been pressing al Qaeda's longtime core in eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan for years, a campaign emboldened by the additional 30,000 troops President Obama sent to Afghanistan in 2010. Several years later, Osama Bin Laden is dead and the people now in charge of the terror group have yet to show his global ambitions.

A Pentagon report released Tuesday concludes al Qaeda now relies on "a shrinking cadre of experienced leaders."

One senior counterterrorism official says "it is hard to imagine" al Qaeda's core leaders being able to pull together the funds, planning and support needed for an attack on the United States.

[Photo Gallery: One Year After Bin Laden's Death.]

While officials say al Qaeda's affiliates in Yemen, North Africa, Iraq and Somalia are now much stronger than its Pakistan-based core, the organization appears unable to carry out an attack as sophisticated and complex as 9/11 and remains largely focused on Afghanistan.

"The terrorist group continues to derive some benefits from its engagement in Afghanistan, including exploitation of incidents for propaganda, personnel recruitment and tribal connections that it could use to re-establish future safe havens," states the Pentagon report. "Al Qaeda views continued involvement in Afghanistan as integral to its global image and relevance."

Seth Jones, a political scientist at the Rand Corp., agrees with the Pentagon and intelligence agencies' conclusions.

"For the moment, al Qaeda core's ability to plot operations from Pakistan appears to be decreased," Jones says. "We don't see a lot of hardcore plotting from inside Pakistan."

Still, he warns that the leadership that took over following Bin Laden's death is composed of "very competent people."

"They still have a command-and-control node in Pakistan," Jones says. "One challenge for the U.S. is determining just how to measure al Qaeda core's strength."

Though the terror syndicate appears less able to strike the United States, Jones says "there is no question" the group continues to support Taliban and other anti-Western fighters in Afghanistan.

"You still have an al Qaeda in Afghanistan that would like to increase its presence there," Jones says. "In the fight against al Qaeda, the Afghan picture is key for the next few years."

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