The emerging offshoots have altered the composition of the terrorist network, scrambling its structure and complicating U.S. assessments of the threat that al-Qaeda represents.
U.S. officials said the terrorist network’s core in Pakistan and its ability to carry out large-scale attacks in the United States have been all but demolished, leading to a shift in focus to emerging threats elsewhere.
Recent attacks on U.S. facilities in Libya and a natural gas complex in Algeria, combined with the growing strength of an affiliate in Syria, have drawn attention to the lethal potential of an increasingly atomized al-Qaeda network, officials said. And though the targets of the groups have largely been regional, their multinational memberships and adherence to al-Qaeda’s ideology have heightened concern that the violence could spread.
“One of the most concerning things we’re seeing is a cross-fertilization and cross-pollinization of affiliates,” a senior U.S. intelligence official said. The newer groups have more diverse memberships, abundant access to weapons and a willingness to collaborate that “serves as a multiplier effect,” the official said.
The official, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely about ongoing counterterrorism policy.
The shifting complexion of al-Qaeda has created new counterterrorism challenges for President Obama, who relied heavily on CIA drone strikes and clandestine missions by U.S. special operations forces to destroy large pieces of al-Qaeda’s network and kill its founder, Osama bin Laden, and other leaders in Pakistan.
U.S. officials said Obama’s options are more constrained in North Africa and the Middle East, regions where the United States has fewer intelligence resources and has seen staunch counter-terrorism allies, such as former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, driven from power.
In the short term, the affiliates provide new justification for the Obama administration’s efforts to turn elements of its counter-
terrorism policies, including kill lists and drone bases, into fixtures for a fight expected to last another decade or more.
The U.S. military recently disclosed plans to build a drone base in the west African country of Niger to conduct surveillance flights over neighboring Mali, where al-Qaeda offshoots seized control of parts of the country. U.S. officials have not ruled out using the base for armed drones, but for now they plan to rely on regional allies and France to contain the militants.