WASHINGTON – U.S. officials boast that al-Qaida has never been weaker, its upper ranks decimated because of the stepped-up drone attacks in Pakistan and special operations raids in Afghanistan.
At the same time, they warn, in seeming contradiction: An even greater number of well-trained terrorists are setting their sights on the United States.
Across the remote tribal lands between Afghanistan and Pakistan where terror groups hide, U.S. officials say they've seen a fusion of al-Qaida and others targeted by U.S. forces, including the Haqqani group and the Pakistani Taliban, who formerly focused only on their local areas.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the groups have become a "synergy of terrorist groups" with "an expanding desire to kill Americans." He was speaking last week at the Aspen Institute security forum in Colorado.
At the same forum, National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter warned that the "troubling alignment" extends all the way to Yemen and Africa. The dispersed network is making terror plots harder to spot and prevent, he said.
The officials are speaking publicly in an effort to convince the American public — and U.S. ally Pakistan — that the time to hit harder is now, while al-Qaida is weakened. Failure to do that means an even stronger enemy, they argue.
A high-level U.S. counterterrorist delegation is headed to Pakistan this week to try to persuade Pakistan to keep the pressure on the militant groups that now operate almost as one with al-Qaida. The Pakistani government has denied news reports that it has reached out to its former ally, the Haqqani tribe, to secure its participation in talks with the Afghan government. U.S. officials want to make sure that remains the case.
The other part of that administration message, that the campaign has diminished the al-Qaida leadership, is aimed at an American public increasingly weary of the 9-year-old war. In June, at least 60 U.S. troops were killed in Afghanistan, making it one of the deadliest months of the conflict. Polls now find a majority of Americans no longer think the Afghanistan war is worth fighting.
Purely by the numbers, al-Qaida has been devastated by the past 18 months of drone attacks and raids, Leiter said. Although Osama bin Laden remains at large, half of al-Qaida's leadership has been killed in the past year, he said.
The organization is down to only 50 to a 100 "card-carrying" members inside Afghanistan and roughly 300 operatives in Pakistan, he said. Al-Qaida agents in Pakistan are hemmed in, mainly north of Peshawar, as well as North Waziristan, where they have based themselves with the Haqqani network and the Pakistani Taliban, and a small number in the Quetta area, where the exiled Afghan Taliban mainly hold sway.
These groups have cooperated for years, even pre-dating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, said New America Foundation's Peter Bergen, cautioning against describing that as a new development.
The Haqqani group fought beside the Afghan Taliban to help return the Taliban, al-Qaida's former host, to control of Afghanistan. The Pakistani Taliban have sought to overthrow the central government in Islamabad. Lashkar-e-Taiba, another group that works with al-Qaida, has concentrated on attacking Indian targets, like the three-day assault on Mumbai in 2008 that killed 170 people.
But the difference now, U.S. officials contend, is that the local groups are sharing manpower, weaponry and ideology with al-Qaida.
The Pakistani Taliban have already made an attempt on the U.S., through Times Square bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad. That attempt followed the pattern of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, which dispatched Nigerian suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to try to bring down a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day.
U.S. intelligence analysts, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, say even though neither the Haqqani network nor Lashkar e-Taiba has been linked to plots aimed at the mainland U.S., the United States now must assume the groups aspire to strike there, or at the very least help prepare and fund such attacks.
The Haqqanis, estimated by a senior defense official to be between 2,000 and 5,000 strong, have already supported attacks on U.S. targets within Afghanistan, including an al-Qaida and the Taliban suicide bombing that killed seven CIA operatives in Khost, in the suicide bombing last December.
Don Rassler, of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, N.Y., says the group's leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, has been careful not to publicly support direct attacks on the United States, despite repeated questioning in online militant Jihadi forums.
"He knows where the red lines are and he's careful not to cross them, so as not to become even more of a target than he already is," Rassler says.
Counterterrorism chief Leiter said monitoring the spread-out terrorist threat is a growing undertaking. The counterterrorism center receives 8,000-10,000 pieces of counterterrorist information every day, he said.
"Within those reports, there are roughly 10,000 names every day" and "40-plus specific threats and plots," Leiter said, including "bombs that are going to go off today or tomorrow." He likened it to trying to find "a needle in a pile of needles, covered by a haystack."-
Identifying those needles has resulted in huge blows against al-Qaida, he said. Increasingly, though, the United States and Pakistan must explain its attacks, which the enemy uses in propaganda to drive Muslim world public opinion against the United States and the government in Pakistan. The press in Pakistan has claimed that thousands of innocents have been killed by U.S. drone strikes. U.S. officials say it's nowhere near that total, but they will not provide their own estimates.
Leiter said he wouldn't argue "that some of our actions have not led to some people being radicalized." But he added, "It doesn't mean you don't do it. It means you craft a fuller strategy to explain why you're doing it."
Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, said that al-Qaida, too, has turned off wide swaths of Arab and Muslim public opinion by killing 10,000 soldiers, diplomats and mostly civilians in 2009 in Pakistan alone. U.S. officials believe that's partly because their stepped-up drone campaign has forced al-Qaida to work through proxies that don't always listen to the al-Qaida leadership when it comes to avoiding civilian casualties.
The U.S. officials hold out the hope that the next year of the secret war could provide the critical moment that could lead to the decapitation of al-Qaida's leadership. But, they contend, if the pressure comes off, al-Qaida could transform itself into an even stronger, more resilient foe — a process they acknowledge has already begun.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Kimberly Dozier covers intelligence from Washington.