Measuring the Strength of a Changing Al-Qaida More than six years after al-Qaida was routed from its bases in Afghanistan, intelligence analysts debate whether Osama bin Laden's terror network has recovered from the setbacks it suffered. Some analysts say al-Qaida is a shell of what it once was, but U.S. intelligence officials are not so sure.

Measuring the Strength of a Changing Al-Qaida

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

Many al-Qaida leaders have been killed or captured since the network was driven out of Afghanistan, but not - as is well known - Osama bin Laden or his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. And within intelligence circles, there's debate over whether the terrorist network has recovered from the setbacks it's suffered after 9/11.

Some analysts say al-Qaida is a shell of what it once was. U.S. intelligence officials are not so sure. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN: Take your pick of judgments on al-Qaida's strength these days. President Bush, always on the bright side, like last month before the Conservative Political Action Conference.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The Taliban, al-Qaida and their allies are on the run.

GJELTEN: But the president's own intelligence agencies do not say al-Qaida is on the run. National Intelligence Director Michael McConnell, in his most recent threat assessment, said the core al-Qaida leadership has, quote, "regenerated."

Having survived the global war on terror, al-Qaida, in this view, is again a centrally directed network with military capabilities. Here is what McConnell said about al-Qaida two weeks ago on CNN.

Mr. MICHAEL MCCONNELL (Director, National Intelligence): They have the leadership that they had before. They've rebuilt the middle management, the trainers, and they're recruiting very vigorously.

GJELTEN: U.S. analysts say the key development in the al-Qaida comeback was a September 2006 cease-fire agreement in Pakistan between the government and Islamic militants in the area along the border with Afghanistan.

With Pakistani security forces staying out of the region, al-Qaida militants were free to establish a safe haven in that area. Michael Leiter is the acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

Mr. MICHAEL LEITER (Acting Director, National Counterterrorism Center): I think that safe haven has made al-Qaida stronger today than it was two years ago. That has allowed it to recruit, train and deploy individuals in plots against Western Europe and potentially the homeland.

GJELTEN: The homeland being the United States.

Before 2006, al-Qaida was arguably on the run, under attack, its midlevel leadership decimated. Osama bin Laden and his associates could inspire Islamic militant groups in Africa and the Middle East, but not direct them.

Army Major Reid Sawyer from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point says that's now changing. Al-Qaida's central leadership is once again taking charge.

Mr. REID SAWYER (Army Major, Combating Terrorism Center): What we have been observing is al-Qaida's attempt to re-assert control throughout their disparate networks, with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, in the Horn of Africa, to provide guidance and mentoring, if you will, as well as some funding to these organizations. And so the organization has coalesced again because of its ability to have sanctuary. And that's really given it such a benefit that can't be overstated.

GJELTEN: Michael Scheuer, until 2004 a top al-Qaida specialist at the CIA, goes even further in his assessment.

Mr. MICHAEL SCHEUER (Former al-Qaida Specialist, CIA): I think al-Qaida as an organization was never seriously damaged. What we're seeing is it has a new base. It's fairly comfortable where it sits at the moment. And it is able to go back to doing the things it did since 1988.

GJELTEN: But not entirely. The world has changed in recent years, and so has al-Qaida.

(Soundbite of chanting)

GJELTEN: Al-Qaida's now on the Internet, and even has its own media company producing videos for radical Islamist Web sites. This is a new factor. The Internet makes it possible for al-Qaida to promote its version of jihad or holy war and solicit recruits throughout the Muslim world.

Al-Qaida expert Reid Sawyer says the Internet even provides a training mechanism, taking the burden off al-Qaida bases in Pakistan.

Mr. SAWYER: What the Internet has really created for al-Qaida and its affiliated groups is a virtual sanctuary, this ability for individuals to meet online, to discuss, think about operations in a strategic sense and then for, in essence, distance learning to occur where videos can be uploaded, instructional videos, and any individual can come along and download that information and conduct operations with it.

GJELTEN: One of the things this means, however, is that jihadis ready to engage in terrorism may no longer need al-Qaida central. In recent years, many homegrown terrorist groups have sprung up.

Marc Sageman, a former CIA agent and forensic psychiatrist, has closely tracked the evolution of the jihadi movement. He thinks most of the terrorism conducted these days has little to do with the senior al-Qaida leadership.

Mr. MARC SAGEMAN (Former CIA Agent, Forensic Psychiatrist): What we have here is a variety of local movements, people who hang out together who decide to do something, and we lump them with al-Qaida and indeed, raise their status. Whereas, we really should kind of treat them as local common criminals, not really make heroes out of them for young people to emulate.

GJELTEN: Sageman does not dispute that the al-Qaida leadership has been able to re-settle in the Pakistani border area, but he says this new al-Qaida sanctuary is nothing like what it had in Afghanistan before 9/11.

Mr. SAGEMAN: Now what people call training camp is really a rented house for about a month that has maybe half a dozen people.

GJELTEN: With his new book, "Leaderless Jihad," Sageman has become a key figure in the debate over whether the al-Qaida organization is a growing threat. He argues that the old al-Qaida of Osama bin Laden is now less important, with homegrown groups becoming the new face of global terrorism. It's largely an optimistic view: Small, local terrorist groups are less likely to assemble a nuclear weapon or carry out large, complex plots like the 9/11 attacks. Moreover, Sageman argues that the old al-Qaida vision of holy war leading to the establishment of a new Islamic caliphate hasn't proved very successful in practice.

Dr. SAGEMAN: Al-Qaida is strong as long as it's a fantasy. In the three instances where al-Qaida-like movement took control of territories, namely Afghanistan under the Taliban, some parts of Algeria during the civil war and to '90s in al-Anbar province in Iraq, the reality never lived up to those fantasies. And therefore people, after a while, became disillusioned and strongly disillusioned to the point where they turn against the al-Qaida and al-Qaida-like movements.

GJELTEN: Of these three cases, the clearest is the experience of these so-called al-Qaida in Iraq organization largely led by foreigners. Many Iraqi Sunnis have rejected the group's violent ways, especially its willingness to attack other Muslims. In Pakistan, radical Islamist parties identified with al-Qaida suffered big setbacks in recent elections. But al-Qaida in Iraq was always something of a maverick group, and the election results in Pakistan may have had more to do with local factors than with an ideological rejection of the al-Qaida message.

Former CIA officer Michael Scheuer, whose new book is titled "Marching Toward Hell," says it's a mistake to conclude from recent developments that al-Qaida is on its way out.

Mr. MICHAEL SCHEUER (Former CIA Officer; Author, "Marching Toward Hell"): We're very quick to ascribe defeat to the enemy when they don't have a success when we expect them to have a success. We tend to think if we're not attacked when we expect an attack, that we won or the enemy is not capable of doing it. And many times, it's just an issue of patience.

GJELTEN: Al-Qaida may, in fact, be weaker and less dangerous than it seemed a few years ago, or it could just be evolving and possibly growing stronger. One lesson to be learned from previous intelligence judgments about the terrorism threat is that they can be wrong.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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