Eight years after the September 11 attacks, a weakened al-Qaeda remains a tenacious enemy, US officials say, but Americans are growing weary of the fight against terror.
The al-Qaeda network is “still very capable” of attacking the United States and “very focussed” on its goal, top US military officer Admiral Mike Mullen said last month.
Despite a change of leadership in the White House, the campaign launched by George Bush remains a top priority, with his successor Barack Obama vowing to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda” sheltering in neighbouring Pakistan.
The fight against those who staged the attacks that killed nearly 3 000 people in New York and Washington has deprived Osama
bin Laden’s terror network of a safe haven in Afghanistan, after the US-led invasion toppled the Taliban regime at the end of 2001.
The organisation has suffered serious setbacks, with several key figures captured and 11 leaders or associates killed since July 2008, including Abu Khabab al-Masri, chemical and biological arms expert, and Baitullah Mehsud, head of the Pakistan Taliban.
The terror network has not managed an attack in the West since July 2005 and the group’s decline has some experts arguing the threat is starting to recede.
“Twenty-one years since its founding, al-Qaeda is on the defensive, even running out of steam,” said Jean-Pierre Filiu, professor at the Paris Institute of Political Studies.
“It tried to regain the initiative after the US invasion of Iraq but its local branch lost ground … and left in 2006-2007,” he said.
US intelligence agencies, however, disagree that al-Qaeda has faded as a threat.
“Al-Qaeda is feeling some intense pressure at the moment, especially with the loss of several of the group’s top leaders,” said a US counter-terrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“But make no mistake about it: they remain a serious threat to the United States and our allies,” he said, citing the group’s ability to recruit terrorists and plan and finance operations.
“This is a resilient, determined, and adaptive enemy.”
The network has regrouped in Pakistan’s tribal areas, where Bin Laden and his deputy Ayman Zawahiri have taken refuge, and where it helps direct the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.
US officials are concerned meanwhile about al-Qaeda’s transformation into a network of small terrorist “franchises” spread over Asia, the Middle East and Africa, particularly in unstable countries such as Yemen and Somalia.
A cell in Yemen organised a suicide attack this summer against Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who leads the country’s anti-terror efforts. The Saudi prince survived the attack, in which only the bomber was killed.
Despite US government warnings of the lingering danger posed by al-Qaeda, the public’s focus has begun to shift to other concerns amid fatigue with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have claimed the lives of more than 5 000 soldiers.
Recent polls show public support declining for the Afghan mission.
“Many people are tired of fighting terrorism, they’ve been exhausted both in terms of money, in terms of patience, in terms of loss American lives in Iraq, and therefore don’t have the fortitude to carry on especially at a time of economic downturn,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University.
“So now Americans think we have exaggerated the threat, it is not so serious,” he said.
But Hoffman said that “if we withdrew from Afghanistan there would be a massive attack against the United States”.
“Unlike the Vietnam war, where the Vietcong were not going to pursue us back to the US if we left Indochina, this is different. They will pursue us.” – AFP