Is the Core of al Qaeda on its Last Legs?

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By Pam Benson, CNN

WASHINGTON (CNN) — No one is writing al Qaeda’s obituary yet. But one year after its leader Osama bin Laden was shot dead by U.S. commandos, U.S. officials and experts say the terror network’s core group holed up in Pakistan is hemorrhaging and could be in its final days.

CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen, for one, maintains that al Qaeda — at least its components based in south central Asia — is in terrible shape.

“Their record of failure speaks for itself: No success in the west since the London attacks of 2005, no attacks in the United States since 9/11 (2001), almost the entire top leadership dead or captured,” said Bergen.

Adds Robert Grenier, the former head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, “The movement has essentially been marginalized.”

And a senior U.S. official describes al Qaeda as “largely in survival mode, putting most of its energy into coping with the losses and changes of the last year with a disjointed focus on global jihad.”

Ayman al-Zawahiri replaced bin Laden at the helm, but by most all accounts he is a shadow of the cult-like figure of bin Laden.

According to the U.S. official, al-Zawahiri “lacks the charisma of his predecessor and his messages lack the inspiration that was bin Laden’s hallmark.”

In al-Zawahiri’s defense, “He inherited a bit of a lemon” — an organization in decline — “and he’s not making lemonade out of it,” said Bergen, who has just written a book entitled, “Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad.”

Last July, then CIA Director Leon Panetta said that with bin Laden dead, the United States was “within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda.” He went on to say that the group’s remaining leaders were on the run, and it was time “to put maximum pressure on them because… we really can cripple al Qaeda as a threat.”

One of the tools being used, to this end, are missiles launched by unmanned CIA aircraft against members of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups operating from the tribal areas of Pakistan.

While the pace has waned since the May 2011 bin Laden raid, drone strikes have been central to the strategy of President Barack Obama’s administration — as evidenced by a dramatic increase since he took office.

Fran Townsend, a CNN National Security Contributor who was President George W. Bush’s counterterrorism advisor when these attacks were first launched in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, called them “very effective in making it difficult for (terrorists) to communicate, travel, plan and train.”

She added that she feels it is crucial the drone program doesn’t become a bargaining chip in U.S.-Pakistan relations.

That relationship — which has been tension-filled for years — spiraled downward in 2011, after U.S. forces’ secret raid into Pakistan to take out bin Laden and a later attack on Pakistani troops near the Afghanistan border that left 24 dead. U.S. officials characterized the latter attack as an accident.

The Pakistani parliament recently recommended to its government leaders that they clamp down further on U.S. activities within their borders, including the drone program.

There are no sure bets what comes out of back-room discussions among government, military and intelligence officials from both countries that could ultimately shape the U.S. approach going forward.

But U.S. officials and experts generally said they expect drone strikes to continue.

Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, would not discuss the drone program specifically, but he was adamant that “the United States should not give in on anything that we do to disrupt attacks to the homeland. To me any of those options are just non-negotiable.”

Senior U.S. officials told CNN’s Elise Labott that Pakistanis have some part in the drone program, and they’re not preventing or saying anything about strikes going after high-value targets. And the officials said U.S. forces are still committed to going after targets they feel pose a threat.

“The program is going to continue in some way, shape or form irregardless of whether we reach some firm new agreement with the Pakistanis,” added Grenier.

That’s because — even as many key players have gone deeper underground since the bin Laden raid, making it more challenging to organize a spectacular 9/11-type attack — officials and experts insist al Qaeda remains a threat in the region.

“Lower level(al Qaeda) fighters are already joining other militant groups in Pakistan-locals and foreigners-to plot against the West,” said the senior U.S. official. “The reality is that Pakistan remains a permissive environment for terrorism.”

For that reason, the United States must keep the pressure on, said Townsend.

“It’s not over, because they’ve got money and they’ve got some capability, and all they really need to regenerate is time and space,” she said, pointing to the possibility al Qaeda could find another safe haven where it can operate freely to plot attacks and train recruits.

Experts are quick to note that, while the capabilities of the al Qaeda organization in and around Pakistan and Afghanistan seem to have diminished, its offshoots in places like Yemen and North Africa are alive and well.

“The greatest threat right now is with the affiliates,” the U.S. official said. “A diffused enemy is not less of a concern.”

While al-Zawahiri and his core cohorts aren’t necessarily directing these affiliates’ day-to-day actions, Grenier said the links between the arms of al Qaeda are “important from a psychological and motivational standpoint, to the extent al Qaeda … is able to present itself publicly as a united front.”

Deputy Director of National Intelligence Robert Cardillo predicts that al Qaeda will be in a transitional period over the next two to three years, becoming more decentralized as its regional affiliates launch “the bulk of the terrorist attacks.”

“We also believe multiple voices will provide inspiration for the movement and that there will be vigorous debate about local versus global jihad within and among the terrorist organizations,” Cardillo added.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, is the affiliate the intelligence community worries most about, said a senior U.S. counterterrorism official.

“We are convinced they continue to plot against us … (and) their propaganda is both widespread and effective,” the official said.

Bergen sees the potential for Yemen to become the next main sanctuary for al Qaeda, much like Afghanistan was prior to the U.S. invasion, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“Yemen is the nearest analogue to Afghanistan in the Arabian world, topographically, (with a) lack of government control, heavily weaponized … all of those things,” Bergen said.

That’s very disturbing to Rogers, the Michigan congressman, as is the fact al-Zawahiri remains at large.

“We have al Qaeda actually holding ground in Yemen. And the number two guy who was with (bin Laden) from the very beginning, al-Zawahiri, is still out providing guidance and orders and they’re looking for attacks,” said Rogers. “The disruption of (drone) attacks is going along very well. But … we shouldn’t fool ourselves that this is a fight that’s over.”

Although most officials have said the degradation of al Qaeda’s core has virtually eliminated the possibility of a catastrophic attack against the United States, they don’t completely rule it out. And there is still the concern about smaller scale or “lone wolf” attacks.

That has left many in the U.S. national security apparatus adopting what Grenier calls a 1% doctrine.

“If there is a 1% chance it could happen, you have to treat it as though it were a near certainty,” he said.