Intelligence: Al-Qaida Crippled

WASHINGTON -- The failure of al-Qaida to launch terrorist attacks against the United States or its allies during the war in Iraq has bolstered a growing belief among U.S. intelligence agencies that 19 months of worldwide counterterrorism operations and arrests have nearly crippled the organization.

While warning that al-Qaida is still capable of mounting terrorist operations, senior intelligence officials and members of Congress who review classified material on the matter speak optimistically about the progress made since the Sept. 11 attacks by the CIA and FBI working with their foreign counterparts.

The starkest example of al-Qaida's demise, according to terrorism experts, has been the lack of reprisals for the U.S.-led war against Iraq, especially after leader Osama bin Laden in an audiotape released April 7 urged followers to mount suicide attacks against the United States and Britain to "avenge the innocent children ... assassinated in Iraq." By contrast, in 2002, bin Laden messages preceded or followed attacks by al-Qaida and its associates in Pakistan, Tunisia, Kuwait, Yemen and Bali.

Intelligence officials said the killings or capture of al-Qaida members, the interrogation of prisoners, the elimination of Afghanistan as a base and the hunt for al-Qaida adherents has disrupted the network's ability to communicate and made it difficult to plan attacks.

Officials said increased vigilance by intelligence services has increased their ability to deter terrorist operations. Some pointed to the success by U.S. and Pakistani authorities last week in foiling an apparent al-Qaida plan to fly an explosives-laden plane into the U.S. Consulate in Karachi, Pakistan.

The al-Qaida leadership was significantly dismantled during the first year following the Sept. 11 strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But terrorist experts still expected bin Laden's followers to have carried out attacks during the Iraq war. They said it was noteworthy that this did not occur.

"It's no coincidence" that no operations occurred, said Cofer Black, a CIA terrorism official who heads the State Department's counterterrorism office. "This was the big game for them -- you put up or shut up and they have failed. It proves that the global war on terrorism has been effective, focused and has got these guys on the run."

Intelligence officials tend to agree, though most including Black temper their confidence by noting that further attacks, including those hatched some time ago, remain possible. They worry about hidden al-Qaida cells in the United States that might be waiting for the right moment to attack, and about the FBI's ability to find and stop them.

"One is tempted to say [al-Qaida] is crippled," one senior intelligence analyst said. "But they are still capable of more major operations," including those "they have had in the works for years."

Although bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, al-Qaida's second in command, remain at large, the network's original core group of about 20 senior leaders has been sharply reduced. As U.S. President George W. Bush said aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln on Thursday, "nearly one half of al-Qaida's senior operatives have been captured or killed."

Senior intelligence officials point out that the remnants of the network "have difficulty communicating with each other and with operatives in the field, have difficulty moving funds and materiel around" and have not managed to establish any new training camps.

Al-Qaida's greatest setback has been the killing or capture of a string of its planners and field operators after the group's original military director, Muhammad Atef, died in a U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan in November 2001.

Since then, CIA case officers and FBI agents, working with other countries, have captured Atef's replacement, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who U.S. officials say was an organizer of the Sept. 11 attacks; as well as three of Mohammed's lieutenants, Abu Zubaida, Ramzi Binalshibh, and, last week, Tawfig bin Attash, who was picked up in Pakistan with Muhammad's nephew.

Those al-Qaida leaders still at large are believed to be hiding along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and in Iran. The senior intelligence analyst said it remains unclear to what extent those who have taken refuge in Iran are being protected by the Iranian government. Bin Laden and Zawahiri are thought to be hiding separately along the Afghan-Pakistani border with a number of remaining operational chiefs, the analyst said. Those in Iran are largely ideological adherents to al-Qaida not directly involved with mounting terrorist attacks.

The denial of Afghanistan as a secure base of operations and training for al-Qaida severely affected the organization's global reach. Terrorists still operate in South Asia, the Philippines, Indonesia, the Middle East and Chechnya, but, as one official said, "they have lost ... guidance on the international scale."

U.S. Representative Porter Goss, a former CIA case officer and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said the progress in dismantling al-Qaida has been significant. "I think the intelligence community really has driven a lot of the terrorists back into their holes and broken down the command and control," he said. "I wouldn't deny that the success of the community has probably been underreported -- and for good reason."