Weighing News of Al-Qaida 'Setbacks'

CIA Director Michael Hayden says al-Qaida has suffered "significant setbacks" around the world. But analysts say the terrorist network's problems are largely of its own making — not the result of U.S. counterterrorism strategy.

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In an interview published in the Washington Post today, CIA Director Michael Hayden said the United States and its allies are doing, in his words, pretty well against al-Qaida. He offered that assessment even though Osama bin Laden is still at large and his network has been expanding its propaganda operations.

NPR's Tom Gjelten spoke counterterrorism analysts to find out if they share Hayden's optimistic views.

TOM GJELTEN: Michael Hayden singled out Saudi Arabia and Iraq as places where al-Qaida has suffered, in his words, near strategic defeat. A branch of al-Qaida established a foothold in Iraq but the local residents turned against the movement, apparently, in response to al-Qaida's brutal methods. In Saudi Arabia, it was the government itself that took on the terror network. In 2007 alone, Saudi authorities arrested between 400 and 500 militants. Says a senior U.S. intelligence official, if you're on the Saudi's terrorist list, you're probably dead or in jail.

But Jarret Brackman, research director with the Center for Combating Terrorism at West Point, says the most impressive aspect of the Saudi crackdown was the way the authorities went after al-Qaida ideologically with former Jihadi leaders who now have second thoughts about terrorism.

Mr. JARRET BRACKMAN (Research Director, Center for Combating Terrorism, West Point): Bringing in some of the hardline Jihadi clerics and putting them on TV, talking about how they renounce and regret the violence that they inspired, I think it's a case study in how an Arab regime can deal with a domestic al-Qaida problem in a really effective way - not relying on violence, but on really aggressive policing and intelligence, but also smart recognition that this is an ideological challenge as much or more than it is a military challenge.

GJELTEN: In his Washington Post interview, CIA Director Hayden cited this aspect of the struggle against al-Qaida, saying it shows that, quote, "a lot of the Islamic world pushes back on their form of Islam." The United States can't really take credit for this development, but Hayden also claimed military progress in the campaign to root out al-Qaida bases in the area along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The new Pakistani government seems less unkind to let the U.S. government conduct counter-terror operations in that area. But Hayden said he's comfortable with the authorities the United States still has there.

There are clearly limits to this assessment. In neighboring Afghanistan, the U.S. general in charge of military operations sees less cooperation, lately, from the Pakistanis. General Dan McNeill, briefing reporters yesterday in Kabul, says attacks on U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan have risen recently because the Pakistanis have not been going after Taliban and al-Qaida forces on their side of the border.

General DAN McNEILL (U.S. Army): After no pressure on these extremists and these terrorists on the other side of the border, and there appears to be a lack of pressure on them right now. We keep a measurement of what occurs and you'll know over time, when there has been dialogue or peace deals, the incidents are going up. What you're seeing right now is the effects of no pressure on these extremists and insurgents on the other side of the border.

GJELTEN: Michael Hayden's guarded optimism with respect to the fight against al-Qaida, is nevertheless shared by many terrorism experts. Michael Sheehan, an ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism under President Clinton, is the author of a new book called "Crush the Cell." Al-Qaida, he says, has suffered political setbacks. He also warns that a smaller, more isolated al-Qaida can still carry out attacks.

Mr. MICHAEL SHEEHAN (Writer, "Crush the Cell: How to Defeat Terrorism Without Terrorizing Ourselves"): Having a black or white picture of this threat is not helpful. If you think they're 10 feet tall and everywhere, you wind up giving them more credit than they do. Terrorism is an act of the weak. If you overreact to their capability, you spent too much money, invade the wrong countries, you distract yourself. At the same time, if you - it's important to stay focused on them, because they do have an attempt to kill us in large numbers.

GJELTEN: The Washington Post today said Michael Hayden's assessment of the anti-al-Qaida effort was strikingly upbeat. But a senior intelligence official later sought to soften that impression, saying the CIA director did not himself characterize his view in that way.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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