Al-Qaeda’s contraction comes amid indications that the group has considered relocating in recent years but that it ruled out other destinations as either unreachable or offering no greater security than their missile-pocked territory in Pakistan, U.S. officials said.
The group’s weakened condition has raised questions for the CIA about its deployment of personnel and resources. The agency’s station in Pakistan’s capital remains one of its largest in the world, and the bulk of the CIA’s drone fleet continues to patrol that country’s tribal region, even though U.S. counterterrorism officials now assess al-Qaeda’s offshoot in Yemen as a significantly greater threat.
The CIA has resisted moving operatives, drones or other resources away from Pakistan more than temporarily, largely because CIA Director David H. Petraeus and other senior officials — mindful that al-Qaeda has regrouped in the past — think their unfinished priority is to extinguish the network’s base.
“Now is not the time to let up the pressure,” said a U.S. official familiar with drone operations, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “We’ve got an opportunity to keep them down, and letting up now could allow them to regenerate.”
U.S. officials stressed that al-Qaeda’s influence extends far beyond its operational reach, meaning that the terrorist group will remain a major security threat for years.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as its Yemen-based arm is known, has carried out a series of plots, including the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day two years ago. The arrest this week of an alleged al-Qaeda sympathizer in New York underscored the group’s ability to inspire “lone wolf” attacks.
Still, U.S. officials who described al-Qaeda as being on the verge of defeat after Osama bin Laden was killed said they have been surprised by the pace and extent of the group’s contraction in the six months since then.
“We have rendered the organization that brought us 9/11 operationally ineffective,” a senior U.S. counterterrorism official said. Asked what exists of al-Qaeda’s leadership group beyond the top two positions, the official said: “Not very much. Not any of the world-class terrorists they once had.”
U.S. officials said that Zawahiri is a more pragmatic leader than his predecessor, with a firmer grasp of the ground-level difficulties faced by the organization’s estimated few hundred remaining followers in Pakistan.