WASHINGTON – Al-Qaida still keeps Mike Leiter awake at night, despite the hammering the group has taken during his nearly five years as a top U.S. counterterrorism chief.
But as he leaves office, it's not al-Qaida central he worries most about.
It's the spinoffs focused on recruiting Westerners to join the terror cause, and on staging small-scale attacks that require less training and expertise than the ones launched on Sept. 11, 2001, Leiter says. He warns that the core group may even end up emulating them.
Leiter, the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, told The Associated Press in his last scheduled interview that al-Qaida is weaker, thanks to years of pursuit by a network of U.S. intelligence, law enforcement and special operations, followed by the gut-punching Navy SEAL raid in May that killed its leader, Osama bin Laden.
"They have to ask themselves, 'How did this happen?' and 'If it happened to bin Laden, then it can obviously also happen to me,'" Leiter said.
Continued pressure on the terror network is needed, he said, the kind that has so far kept many would-be jihadists from traveling to Pakistan for training since the bin Laden raid — an oblique reference to the classified war being waged in Pakistan and other countries like Yemen and Somalia, through expanded covert drone strikes and the occasional special operations kill-or-capture mission.
Leiter played a key role in the evolution of this undercover campaign by helping to get the NCTC off the ground. An experiment in intelligence-sharing mandated by Congress after 9/11, it was meant to blend the strands of terrorist-related information from the CIA to the FBI and local law enforcement to the State Department. The aim was to target al-Qaida and prevent another attack.
While Leiter is less well known outside Washington, the Harvard-trained lawyer is one of the ultimate counterterrorist insiders, serving two administrations in 4 ½ years, first as deputy and then as director of the NCTC. Before that, he served in government for more than 20 years, including time as a Navy pilot flying EA-6B Prowlers in missions over Iraq and the former Yugoslavia.
Leiter watched the bin Laden raid unfold in the White House Situation Room with the president's national security team. He describes it as one of the most heart-stopping moments since his days of landing on an aircraft carrier in bad weather. It was also one of the most satisfying.
With bin Laden gone, he says the shreds of al-Qaida central's leadership in Pakistan may pursue smaller, harder-to-stop attacks, like its upstart branch in Yemen, al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula, which has moved to the head of the pack of groups deemed most likely to hit the continental United States.
"In my early days of the Bush administration, we still had a greater fear of a catastrophic attack," including the use of chemical, nuclear or biological weapons, Leiter said. After the operations in Pakistan, "I'm far more concerned now ... with the small-scale shooter."
While smaller attacks mean fewer casualties, they'll be harder to spot and stop, Leiter said. He points to plots like the explosive material secreted into printer cartridges in U.S.-bound cargo planes last fall, only intercepted thanks to shared Saudi intelligence.
And there's the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner in 2009. Nigerian-born Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is accused of trying to bring down the plane with explosives in his underwear.
That plot led critics from the White House to Capitol Hill to question whether the entire national security apparatus had learned anything since Sept. 11 — and whether Leiter in particular was doing his job.
Leiter said they had indeed learned from 9/11 and that the material was being shared. But, he added, that was no guarantee they'd see the next attack coming in time to stop it.
Intelligence sharing is a matter of course, he insisted in the AP interview. Members of every major agency confer with the White House by secure videoconference three times a day to share information, and specialized units within the counterterrorism center work problem areas together, combining analysts from the CIA, FBI, the eavesdropping National Security Agency and others to focus on specific geographic regions.
Leiter said the problem is they now have so much information, it is difficult to pick up the patterns that point to one threat or suspect as more dangerous than another.
That leaves his agency and others unable to guarantee 100 percent success, any more than police can head off every school shooting or workplace shooting, Leiter said. He called on Americans to be more resilient, to bounce back faster from attacks with fewer recriminations against the government for allowing attacks to happen — a personal mantra during his NCTC term.
"Otherwise, we've given al-Qaida a win," he said.
Leiter described the evolution in the counterterrorist campaign from the Bush administration to President Barack Obama's as more of an acceleration of techniques already being tried than a wholesale change. An example: the use of special operations raids in preference to the costly, full-scale invasions of Afghanistan and then Iraq, two countries the Obama administration has made clear it would like to leave.
"I think we've always viewed a light American hand as a good thing," Leiter said. "We don't want America to be the face of fighting this battle all the time. If America is the face, then, you have the impression that the U.S. and/or the West, is against Islam."
But he said it would be simplistic to think withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, while switching to waging counterterrorist war by covert drone strike or clandestine raid, would defang al-Qaida's rhetoric casting the effort as a U.S. war on Islam.
"A good al-Qaida ideologue is quite adept at using whatever is at their disposal to convince young impressionable minds that their proper path is to use violence against the West," Leiter said.
Like many in the national security and military community since 9/11, Leiter has seen his personal life suffer under the demands of the job. He remarried on the weekend of the bin Laden raid, after his first marriage ended in divorce.
He decided to spend rare time with his son on a ski holiday just a few days after the Christmas 2009 airliner attack, a decision that remains one of his chief regrets.
He said that even though he was in touch by secure phone every day, the impression left in the media was that both he and the entire counterterrorism community took a "lackadaisical approach" to the incident.
"Of course I'm sorry about the vacation now, because it gave a misimpression," he said. "The story became about me, rather than about everything the community was doing before, during and after the fact, frankly to include me."
One thing he won't miss as he leaves the NCTC, he said, is that ever-present, top-secret, secure Blackberry, a master that must be answered without fail or delay, day or night.
"You have to pick it up," he said. "You know wherever you are, something very bad could happen. ... So your mind never shuts off."
National Counterterrorism Center: http://www.nctc.gov