By Karen DeYoung and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
U.S. and international intelligence officials say that improved recruitment of spies inside the al-Qaeda network, along with increased use of targeted airstrikes and enhanced assistance from cooperative governments, has significantly reduced the terrorist organization's effectiveness.
A U.S. counterterrorism official said that the combined advances have led to the deaths of more than a dozen senior figures in al-Qaeda and allied groups in Pakistan and elsewhere over the past year, most of them in 2009. Officials described Osama bin Laden and his main lieutenants as isolated and unable to coordinate high-profile attacks.
Recent claims of significant success against al-Qaeda have become part of White House deliberations about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, centering on a request by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top American and NATO commander there, for an expanded counterinsurgency campaign that will require more U.S. troops. Discussions began in earnest Tuesday as senior national security and military officials met with President Obama.
Those within the administration who have suggested limiting large-scale U.S. ground combat in Afghanistan, including Vice President Biden, have pointed to an improved counterterrorism effort as evidence that Obama's principal objective -- destroying al-Qaeda -- can be achieved without an expanded troop presence.
The most important new weapon in the Western arsenal is said to be the recruitment of spies inside al-Qaeda and affiliated organizations, a long-sought objective. "Human sources have begun to produce results," Richard Barrett, head of the United Nations' al-Qaeda and Taliban monitoring group, said Tuesday. Barrett is the former chief of Britain's overseas counterterrorism operations.
Current and former senior U.S. officials, who spoke about intelligence matters on the condition of anonymity, confirmed what one former CIA official called "our penetration of al-Qaeda." A senior administration official said that success had come "because of, first of all, very good intelligence capabilities . . . to locate and identify individuals who are part of the al-Qaeda organization."
Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair referred obliquely in an interview with reporters earlier this month to the use of spies, saying that "the primary way" that U.S. intelligence determines which terrorist organizations pose direct threats is "to penetrate them and learn whether they're talking about making attacks against the United States."
Barrett, in a speech Tuesday to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that al-Qaeda is "losing credibility" among potential supporters and recruits because its recent efforts "have not awed people" and are "not up to the standard of 9/11." As the years have passed since the 2001 attacks, he said, al-Qaeda "hasn't really made a connection to a new generation" of young Muslims who have little recollection of the events and are less interested in religion.
In terms of Western efforts, he said, the threat has diminished because "our technical collection," such as intercepts and overhead surveillance, "is much better. We have better human intelligence, [and] they have fewer competent people."
Barrett's remarks stood in contrast with an assessment he made in June, when he warned in a United Nations Radio interview of complacency in the counterterrorism fight and focused on al-Qaeda efforts to infiltrate Western countries, rather than Western infiltration of terrorist organizations.
The senior administration official said that more "surgical" missile attacks on terrorist leaders in their inaccessible Pakistani mountain sanctuaries and elsewhere had been increasingly successful and had largely avoided the civilian casualties that had been a source of anti-American sentiment. A total of 39 such attacks have been launched between January and mid-September, according to news reports, compared with 36 under the Bush administration in 2008.
The official also pointed to "progress we've made in other places," particularly in Somalia, where U.S. Special Forces conducted a raid this month -- with helicopters launched from a naval vessel -- that included an unprecedented ground landing to retrieve the bodies of the four alleged terrorists who were killed. They included the target of the attack, Saleh Ali Nabhan, a leader of the Somali insurgent group al-Shabaab, which was allegedly involved in the 1998 al-Qaeda bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa.
"One of the things we've been trying to do . . . is to make sure we have this precision of action, that is not going to be indiscriminate and is not going to involve any type of collateral damage," the administration official said. "We're trying to surgically excise these problems without causing additional problems."
The official acknowledged that such actions are far easier in Somalia, which has no functioning government, than in places such as Pakistan. "I don't want to give the impression that they are ushering in U.S. operatives," he said.
But he maintained that other governments and intelligence services "have been much more amenable to cooperating with Washington because of the new image that has been projected" by Obama. "I don't want to criticize the previous administration, because they were equally motivated," he said, "but cooperating too closely with Americans at that time tainted them."
"If the United States is heavily engaged in certain activities, whether on the ground, air or sea, it requires cooperation with certain countries," the official said. "Over the last nine months . . . the environment has been much more conducive to cooperation."
Obama's senior counterterrorism adviser, former CIA official John O. Brennan, has traveled to Saudi Arabia twice this year, and there has been a string of official visits to Pakistan.
The administration remains concerned about "al-Qaeda franchising out," particularly in northern Africa, the official said, and the network clearly remains capable of some surprises. Barrett made particular reference to a failed suicide attack late last month against a senior Saudi official, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. The bomber carried undetected explosives inside what was described by Stratfor Global Intelligence, which first reported the unprecedented mode of attack, as his "anal cavity." The bomb was believed detonated by a cellphone signal, but the only person killed was the attacker, Abdullah Hassan Taleh al-Asiri, one of 85 "most-wanted" militants on a Saudi list who had scheduled a meeting to discuss a government amnesty offer.
"This is a device designed to scare us all," Barrett said.
Staff writer Glenn Kessler and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.