AP National Security Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Far from being on the brink of collapse, al-Qaida's core leadership remains a potent threat -- and one that experts say has encouraged the terror network's spread into more countries today than it was operating in immediately after 9/11.
President Barack Obama, who ordered the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, has described al-Qaida's headquarters as "a shadow of its former self" and his spokesman Jay Carney has called it "severely diminished" and "decimated." The bravado, however, didn't match the Obama administration's action this week.
Nineteen U.S. diplomatic outposts stretching across the Eastern Hemisphere remain closed, and nonessential personnel have been evacuated from the U.S. Embassy in Yemen after intelligence officials said they had intercepted a recent message from al-Qaida's top leader about plans for a major terror attack.
The new communique came from bin Laden's replacement, Ayman al-Zawahri, who as early as December 2001 announced plans to decentralize the network and scatter its affiliates across the globe as a way of ensuring its survival.
Now, major al-Qaida hubs are thriving along the Iraqi-Syrian border, in North Africa and, in the most serious risk to the U.S., in Yemen.
The regional hubs may not take direct orders from al-Zawahri, and terror experts say they rarely coordinate operations with each other or share funding and fighters. But they have promoted al-Qaida's mission far beyond what its reach was a dozen years ago and, in turn, created an enduring legacy for its core leaders.
"Even while the core al-Qaida group may be in decline, al-Qaida-ism, the movement's ideology, continues to resonate and attract new adherents," Bruce Hoffman, director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, wrote in a research paper earlier this year.
Bin Laden's death, Hoffman wrote, "left behind a resilient movement that, although seriously weakened, has been expanding and consolidating its control in new and far-flung locales."
On Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. has focused on al-Qaida's affiliates, including the one based in Yemen, after targeting the terror network's top leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"We're not naive about the challenges we're facing," Psaki said. "We do think a threat still remains."
"We're intensifying our effort on affiliates," she said. "That's part of what our focus is. And, yes, we've had some successes."
Al-Zawahri, an Egyptian whose location is unknown, issues messages to followers every few months that are posted and circulated on jihadi websites. His latest, posted July 30, lashed out at Obama for the continued U.S. detention of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and for launching deadly drone attacks in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and other Muslim countries.
"You fought us for 13 years. ... Did we soften or toughen up? Did we back out or advance? Did we withdraw or spread out?" al-Zawahri asked Obama in his July 30 message, according to a transcript of his letter that was translated from Arabic by SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist websites.
He continued, "I call on every Muslim in every spot on Earth to seek with all that he can to stop the crimes of America and its allies against the Muslims -- in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Mali, and everywhere."
Three days later, the State Department announced the temporary closing of U.S. embassies and diplomatic outposts across the Mideast, Africa and Asia -- although not in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel or Mali. Officials this week said the closures were prompted by an unspecified threat to U.S. and Western interests in a message from al-Zawahri to his top lieutenant in Yemen, where al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is based.
AQAP, as the terror network's regional hub is known, is led by Nasser al-Wahishi, who for years was close to al-Zawahri and bin Laden, and is one of al-Qaida's few remaining core leaders, said SITE director Rita Katz.
Intelligence officials say AQAP has for years announced its intent to attack the U.S., and is widely considered the biggest threat to the West of the al-Qaida affiliates. The group is linked to the botched Christmas Day 2009 bombing of an airliner bound for Detroit and explosives-laden parcels intercepted aboard cargo flights a year later.
Katz said AQAP may serve as the future al-Qaida headquarters, given that al-Zawahri and other core leaders pay attention to al-Wahishi. But she warned, "There will be a new leader in the future, and I doubt it will stay the same."
For the most part, al-Qaida's regional power centers have formed in places undergoing political upheaval, where security forces are too distracted by internal war or strife to clamp down on extremists.