How the Al Qaeda Terrorism Threat is Mutating

Iraq may be turning a corner, but Osama bin Laden is still out there—and dangerous.

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Terrorist chieftain Osama bin Laden is thought to be hiding in one of the world's most remote areas—the tribal territories between Pakistan and Afghanistan—but tracking him down remains a priority for the CIA, seven years after the 9/11 attacks. At the moment, bin Laden "appears to be largely isolated from the day-to-day operations of the organization he leads," CIA Director Michael Hayden told a group in Washington.

The tribal border region is at the center of international terrorism against the West. "All the threats we have to the West have a thread that takes it back to the [Afghanistan-Pakistan] border," Hayden said. "If there is a major strike on this country, it will bear the fingerprints of al Qaeda."

In a notable shift, Hayden portrayed the tribal areas as the focus of the counterterrorism efforts. In doing so, he appeared to break with President Bush, who as recently as last month was still calling Iraq the central front in the war against terrorism. Hayden said that the terrorist group Al Qaeda in Iraq "is on the verge of strategic defeat."

Indeed, the Iraq terrorist threat has mutated. "Today, the flow of money, weapons, and foreign fighters into Iraq is greatly diminished, and al Qaeda senior leaders no longer point to it as the central battlefield," he said. "In fact, bleed-out from Iraq—export or diversion of terrorists and their deadly capabilities—is as much a concern now as the ongoing threat of Al Qaeda in Iraq attacks inside the country itself."

Finding bin Laden, therefore, despite his distance from the daily workings of al Qaeda, would be a major success. "His death or capture clearly would have a significant impact on the confidence of his followers—both core al Qaeda and unaffiliated extremists throughout the world," Hayden said. "The truth is, we simply don't know what would happen if bin Laden is killed or captured. But I'm willing to bet that whatever happens, it would work in our favor."

Meanwhile, the terrorist group "constantly looks for ways to make up for losses, extend its reach, and take advantage of opportunities. We are seeing this clearly today in places like North Africa, Somalia, and Yemen," the spy chief told the Atlantic Council on Thursday in his first substantive remarks on the status of the fight against al Qaeda since the U.S. presidential elections.

The al Qaeda push into North Africa and other areas, combined with a series of recent attacks, is a troubling sign, Hayden said. Recent attacks and threats from the Algerian-based affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb, are "greater in scope and severity than any since the group merged with al Qaeda about two years ago."

Hayden pointed to successes by authorities against terrorist groups in Indonesia and the Philippians, as well as in Iraq.

Hayden, appointed by President Bush in the summer of 2006, said that he was working to give President-elect Obama and his incoming administration "as clear a picture as possible of the state of the conflict and the shape of the enemy."

There has not been any uptick in terrorist "chatter" indicating an attack in connection with the presidential transition, he said.

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