Beyond bin Laden, “we have eliminated a number of generations of leaders,” said the senior U.S. counterterrorism official. “They have not had a successful operation in a long time. You at some point have to ask yourself, ‘What else do we have to do?’ ”
Ayman al-Zawahiri, who succeeded bin Laden as leader of al-Qaeda, is among a handful of “high-value targets” left in Pakistan, U.S. officials said. Zawahiri is seen as a divisive figure who may struggle to prevent al-Qaeda from splintering into smaller, more regionally focused nodes.
AQAP, as the Yemen-based group is known, has emerged as the most dangerous of those affiliates. The group is responsible for recent plots, including the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner in 2009 and the attempt to mail parcels packed with explosives to U.S. addresses last year.
The U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, the elite military unit that carried out the bin Laden raid, has led the pursuit of AQAP with Special Operations advisers working alongside Yemeni forces, and both piloted and drone aircraft patrolling from above.
Just days after bin Laden was killed, JSOC was in position to deliver a follow-on blow to AQAP. At least three U.S. aircraft, including a drone, fired rockets at a pickup truck in which Aulaqi was traveling. Despite the barrage, the New Mexico native known for fiery online sermons was able to switch vehicles and escape.
U.S. officials described the miss as a major setback. “We missed the opportunity to do two quick kills of senior al-Qaeda guys,” said a senior U.S. military official familiar with JSOC operations.
CIA’s role in Yemen
In part because of such struggles, the Obama administration is bolstering the CIA’s role in Yemen, seeking to replicate its pursuit of al-Qaeda in Pakistan. The agency is expected to work closely with Saudi Arabia, exploiting the kingdom’s close ties to Yemen’s most influential tribes in an effort to develop new networks of sources on AQAP.
At the same time, the agency is building a desert airstrip so that it can begin flying armed drones over Yemen. The facility, which is scheduled to be completed in September, is designed to shield the CIA’s aircraft, and their sophisticated surveillance equipment, from observers at busier regional military hubs such as Djibouti, where the JSOC drones are based.
The Washington Post is withholding the specific location of the CIA facility at the administration’s request.
More broadly, U.S. officials warn that al-Qaeda’s influence is likely to outlast its status as a functioning network. “Terrorist organizations, even more than enemy armies, are capable of reconstituting,” the senior U.S. counterterrorism official said. “The thing we absolutely don’t want to do is hang out another ‘Mission Accomplished’ sign.”