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U.S. intelligence officials are trying to figure out just how dangerous al-Qaida still is. And they seem to agree that core al-Qaida, the group that launched the 9/11 attacks and looked to Osama bin Laden for guidance, is in trouble.
As NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports, what is left is a loose affiliation of groups that presents an entirely different threat.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: This week, leaders of the intelligence community were on Capitol Hill providing their annual assessment of threats to the U.S. The hearings went on for hours. The officials mentioned Iran and cyber-attacks and weapons proliferation.
But here's what's interesting. The discussion about al-Qaida today lasted literally minutes. Here's how the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, Matthew Olsen, summed up the al-Qaida threat before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
MATTHEW OLSEN: The bottom line, I think, is that al-Qaida is weaker now than it has been in the past 10 years.
TEMPLE-RASTON: And this is what the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, told the House Intelligence Committee earlier today.
JAMES CLAPPER: As long as we sustain the pressure on it, we judge that core al-Qaida will be of largely symbolic importance to the global jihadist movement, but regional affiliates, and to a lesser extent, small cells and individuals will drive the global jihad agenda.
TEMPLE-RASTON: It's one thing to be decentralized, but what is happening may be more significant than that.
BRUCE HOFFMAN: What we see is a movement that's fragmenting.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Bruce Hoffman is a professor at Georgetown University and a terrorism expert.
HOFFMAN: The threats may not be as serious as 9/11/2001 type threats, but because the groups are smaller and, fortunately, less capable, nonetheless, they're much more difficult to identify. They're much more difficult to track and, in turn, they're far more difficult to anticipate and prevent. So I think the threat is very much shifting, but it's not going away.
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's why the U.S. intelligence community is turning its focus to groups like al-Qaida's arm in Yemen or Islamic militias in Somalia. In Nigeria, a local separatist group called Boko Haram came out with a video message this week that called on jihadis to focus on the United States. It's unclear that Boko Haram has the reach to launch any attack against the U.S., but intelligence officials are watching the group.
AUDREY KURTH CRONIN: I'm Audrey Kurth Cronin, professor at the School of Public Policy, George Mason University.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Professor Cronin says there's another important development that the hearings revealed: The intelligence community has become far less breathless about al-Qaida.
CRONIN: Well, I think that we're returning to a slightly more normal perspective on terrorism. We're not seeing al-Qaida as the only organization that uses terrorism and we're going back to a broader view where we have threats of terrorism from many different sources and so I think that's the transition that's underway.
TEMPLE-RASTON: This broader view is taking into account not just al-Qaida affiliates, but new terrorist groups that could take advantage of the instability that's followed the Arab Spring.
Consider the availability of guns and other weapons. According to intelligence officials, before the fall of Gadhafi in Libya, an AK-47 in North Africa cost about $1,000. With the flood of weapons coming out of Libya, the AK-47 now costs about half that.
Georgetown's Bruce Hoffman says that's just the beginning.
HOFFMAN: If the Syrian government falls and there's the same instability that attended the fall of the Gadhafi regime with the fall of Bashar Assad's regime, the region will be flooded with weapons.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Whether that could help al-Qaida's affiliates or new groups is unclear. That's why intelligence officials are watching the developments so closely.
CRONIN: You know, the bottom line is, when is it rest in peace al-Qaida?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Again, Audrey Kurth Cronin.
CRONIN: And my answer would be that - not yet. Some things require the passage of time. All the indicators are positive, particularly with respect to al-Qaida's core. Al-Qaida has declined, but only an historian can declare that it's dead.
TEMPLE-RASTON: But, for the first time, U.S. officials seem willing to say publicly the group's pulse is weak and thready and it's time to look for threats elsewhere. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.
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