WASHINGTON – U.S. and international intelligence officials say that improved recruitment of spies inside the al-Qaida network, along with increased use of targeted airstrikes and enhanced assistance from cooperative governments, has significantly reduced the terrorist organization’s effectiveness.
A U.S. counterterrorism official said that the combined advances have led to the deaths of more than a dozen senior figures in al-Qaida and allied groups in Pakistan and elsewhere over the past year, most of them in 2009. Officials described Osama bin Laden and his main lieutenants as isolated and unable to coordinate high-profile attacks.
Recent claims of significant success against al-Qaida have become part of White House deliberations about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, centering on a request by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top American and NATO commander there, for an expanded counterinsurgency campaign that will require more U.S. troops. Discussions began in earnest Tuesday as senior national security and military officials met with President Obama.
Those within the administration who have suggested limiting large-scale U.S. ground combat in Afghanistan, including Vice President Joe Biden, have pointed to an improved counterterrorism effort as evidence that Obama’s principal objective – destroying al-Qaida – can be achieved without an expanded troop presence.
The most important new weapon in the Western arsenal is said to be the recruitment of spies inside al-Qaida and affiliated organizations, a long-sought objective. “Human sources have begun to produce results,” Richard Barrett, head of the United Nations’ al-Qaida and Taliban monitoring group, said Tuesday.
Current and former senior U.S. officials, who spoke about intelligence matters only on the condition of anonymity, confirmed what one former CIA official called “our penetration of al-Qaida.” A senior administration official said that success had come “because of, first of all, very good intelligence capabilities … to locate and identify individuals who are part of the al-Qaida organization.”
Barrett, in a speech Tuesday to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that al-Qaida is “losing credibility” among potential supporters and recruits because its recent efforts “have not awed people” and are “not up to the standard of 9/11.” As the years have passed since the 2001 attacks, he said, al-Qaida “hasn’t really made a connection to a new generation” of young Muslims who have little recollection of the events and are less interested in religion.
In terms of Western efforts, he said, the threat has diminished, because “our technical collection,” such as intercepts and overhead surveillance, “is much better. We have better human intelligence, (and) they have fewer competent people.”