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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's follow up on yesterday's unexpected development in the trial of the Christmas Day bomber. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab entered a guilty plea to trying to blow up a plane in 2009. The Nigerian man told the Detroit court his crimes were retribution for American killings in Muslim lands.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Abdulmutallab was a foot soldier in al-Qaida, and his guilty plea marks another occasion to check on the war against that group. Obama administration officials say that after the killing of Osama bin Laden and other figures, al-Qaida's core group is nearing collapse.

INSKEEP: Here's a presidential advisor, General Douglas Lute, speaking over the summer.

GENERAL DOUGLAS LUTE: I think in this succession period that there are three to five key senior leaders in al-Qaida, that if they're removed from the battlefield would seriously jeopardize al-Qaida's capacity to regenerate and therefore move us decidedly further towards defeat.

INSKEEP: He said they're three to five key leaders away. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston looked into that statement.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: General Lute isn't the only one who's made this claim about al-Qaida's demise. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has done it. He's talked about al-Qaida being near what he called strategic defeat. But what makes General Lute's comments different is that he actually put a number on how many people the U.S. would need to remove from the battlefield. There's another person who thinks this view has merit: Michael Leiter. He was the head of the National Counterterrorism Center during both the Bush and Obama administrations.

MICHAEL LEITER: Could you kill three to five key leaders of al-Qaida in Pakistan and have al-Qaida in Pakistan be so significantly weakened that it was very difficult for it to launch any attack against the West of any sophistication? Yes, I actually think that's possible.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The list would include leaders like Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's replacement, as well as longtime operatives with experience planning attacks. But Leiter says that wouldn't necessarily end the threat.

LEITER: It would be a meaningful tactical step toward defeating that specific enemy, but it doesn't speak to the broader terrorist threat which is emanating from the region or the broader specific threat from al-Qaida.

TEMPLE-RASTON: In other words, the U.S. needs to worry about more than just a handful of bin Laden associates hiding out in Pakistan. Now al-Qaida, which means the base in Arabic, isn't just a group but is becoming more of a movement with global reach.

BRUCE HOFFMAN: A movement like al-Qaida that's more than two decades old, even as weak as it is now, its survival is not predicated on two to three people or four or five people.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. He says al-Qaida's core has diminished in importance.

HOFFMAN: It deliberately created itself, as its name suggests, to be the base or the foundation to inspire this global radical campaign of violence. We may force the collapse of al-Qaida in one place, but I believe that its strategy in recent years has been to replicate itself into other locations.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Other locations like Yemen or Somalia. For months now, officials have been making the case that al-Qaida's affiliates are America's chief concern. Al-Qaida's arm in Yemen, for example, has leveled a number of attacks against the U.S. in the past two years but those were independent operations, and al-Qaida's core had little to do with them. So in a sense the terrorist threat has moved beyond bin Laden's replacement and the men around him in Pakistan. What's more, other Islamist groups - groups that haven't adopted al-Qaida's name - are starting to target the U.S., and they wouldn't be affected if al-Qaida's top tier was eliminated.

LEITER: That doesn't touch the organization that was behind the attempted attack on Times Square with Faisal Shahzad - TTP, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Again, Michael Leiter.

LEITER: It doesn't address the Haqqani Network that thus far has only pursued American targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan and not beyond, but could in the future.

TEMPLE-RASTON: TTP, the Haqqani Network - these groups vaguely subscribe to al-Qaida's ideology, but they have a completely different leadership. So General Lute's prediction about al-Qaida's collapse may actually end up meaning more to Americans than to the new enemies who may be planning to target us. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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