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Al-Qaida: The end in sight

Friday - 1/27/2012, 9:37am  ET

binLaden.jpg
U.S. Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden during a night raid on his compound last May. (AP)

Reign of al-Qaida may be ending

WTOP's J.J. Green reports.

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Leadership of al-Qaida weakens

WTOP's J.J. Green reports.

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J.J. Green, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - There is widespread agreement that al-Qaida's reign is over. It's just a matter of time before the remaining leaders and fighters are killed, captured or give up.

"There's no question, the core of al-Qaida is at the lowest point in its history. Due to the sustained pressure al-Qaida is under, its leaders have to spend more time and resources hiding than advancing operations," a U.S. counterterrorism official told WTOP.

In addition to the withering drone strikes and constant harassment of the organization, which have systematically dismantled the organization, members of al-Qaida's management, according to the official, "haven't been able to replace the experienced leaders they've lost over the past few years—most notably Osama Bin Ladin."

Just this week, celebrations broke out in the arid, dusty Yemeni outpost of Rada. Ten days after the town crumbled under a terrifying assault by hundreds of al-Qaida fighters, the nightmare ended when locals stood up to the fighters.

In a move that surprised many, when Yemeni tribesmen rose up against them, the al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fighters backed down -- without firing a single shot. They hurriedly reclaimed their captured members and ran off.

The al-Qaida had no fight left.

The retreat of the once powerful, seemingly omnipresent, heir apparent of the al-Qaida parent group verified what U.S. and international intelligence officials have been predicting was coming: the death of al-Qaida.

"It's over," says Richard Barrett, coordinator of the United Nations al-Qaida monitoring team. "These things go in phases, and I think this one's coming to its end."

Barrett, who had been tracking al-Qaida's every move since 2004, is the first of all the credible international officials monitoring al-Qaida to sound the death knell.

"Al-Qaida has some really hard knocks over the last months. Certainly the death of bin Laden being a very, very big knock and I think the leadership of al-Qaida is extremely weak at the moment."

So weak, he says they are irrelevant.

"You can hardly see [Al Qaida.] It makes so little impression on the world generally. I think they're all keeping their heads down and are very worried about their own security."

He and his team are not alone in their observations.

Phil Mudd, senior global analyst for Oxford Analytica, also is optimistic that al-Qaida central is rapidly reaching the end of its existence.

"These guys are on their heels. They're suffering a lot, but they're still persistent, so I think one of the questions we'll face is what Zawahiri has in store this year -- the year after the demise of Osama bin Laden," Mudd said.

Barrett says there will be sightings.

"Sure, it'll trickle on and there'll always be people who are tempted to do something crazy and do something violent and claim it's because they've been inspired by al-Qaida."

But he and colleagues expect they will be poorly organized, weak and a far cry from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"What I've seen is that the organization is in trouble, and if we see an attempt, the attempt will not be an indication of an organization showing signs of strength as it did in the Sept. 11 attacks a decade ago. An attack today would be an indication simply that the organization is trying to remain relevant," said Mudd, the former deputy director of the CIA's Counter Terrorism Center.

The U.S. counterterrorism official says the struggle for relevance is compounded by the decline in leadership skills at the top of the organization.

"The core leadership of al-Qaida in Pakistan risks being eclipsed by its affiliates elsewhere, such as AQAP in Yemen. This hasn't happened yet. Ayman al-Zawahiri is still at the head, but it will be interesting to see if his influence wanes. He doesn't have the same devoted following as bin Laden."

The decline of al-Qaida as global engine of radical jihad has been accompanied by the rise of lone actors.

Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for Strategic Communications, told WTOP in a September 2011 interview, "As al-Qaida has been damaged as an organization, they've lost the capability to carry out complex operations where they train recruits and deploy them on missions like 9/11, which is a very complex plot that involved a lot of time."

Rhodes added, "To make up for that, they try inspiring other individuals to launch attacks who live in the U.S. -- people who may never have traveled to a training camp, for instance, or may not even have had any contact with al-Qaida but are inspired to engage in acts of violence."

Even after al-Qaida is gone, Barrett warns, "There will be a lot of terrorism still of course. There's a lot of political violence. You look at countries like Pakistan, for example, there's a lot of political violence there that's not going to go away. We always had to live with terrorism."

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)