A year ago Tuesday, Navy SEALs attacked Osama bin Laden's secret compound in Pakistan and may have fundamentally changed al-Qaida as we know it.
The Obama administration's top counterterrorism chief, John Brennan, spoke Monday in Washington, D.C., and seemed on the precipice of talking about the terrorist group in the past tense.
"The death of bin Laden was our most strategic blow yet against al-Qaida," Brennan told an audience at the Wilson Center. "And for the first time since this fight began, we can look ahead and envision a world in which the al-Qaida core is simply no longer relevant."
Brennan was careful to talk about the al-Qaida core, and the distinction he's making is important. It signals just how much the fight against al-Qaida has changed. The death of bin Laden crystallized a new way the intelligence community has started to think about the group. Officials now divide their analysis into two distinct categories: the al-Qaida organization and al-Qaida as a movement.
The Two Al-Qaidas
The organization is the group that Osama bin Laden built decades ago. It started almost like a corporation; recruits had salaries and vacation time. That al-Qaida, officials said, is on life support. Al-Qaida as a movement, whether people embrace its ideology or attack in its name, is still robust, and it is this movement component of al-Qaida that worries counterterrorism officials.
"The mother al-Qaida is a couple hundred people," says Daniel Byman, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. "It has certainly shown it is capable, it's lethal, but its real army are these affiliate groups."
Affiliate groups like al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen and al-Shabab in Somalia.
"A number of groups around the globe have taken on the al-Qaida label, and this trend seems to be accelerating," Byman said at a recent Brookings event looking at al-Qaida a year after bin Laden. "So we have groups that primarily had a local agenda, a local focus, local fighters, and now they are somewhat of an al-Qaida flavor to them, and that 'somewhat' is really the key.
"On one hand you have groups like al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula that could be out of the al-Qaida core's playbook, and in other cases you have attacks on Western targets that are really local. There's a real range," he said.
Yemen's arm is the example that gets the most attention. Its leadership has launched at least two plots against U.S. civil aviation: the attack on Northwest Flight 253 several Christmases ago, in which a young man boarded the flight with explosives hidden in his underwear, and a cargo bomb plot a short time after that.
There are other, less high-profile, examples. Consider a group in Nigeria called Boko Haram. It has been in the headlines recently for its role in attacking Christian targets in Nigeria. Right now, the Boko Haram attacks are local. What intelligence officials are watching for is whether that changes. Al-Qaida's viability as a movement depends on whether its post-bin Laden leadership can take groups like Boko Haram and get them to embrace a global agenda.
Too Soon To Tell
Phil Mudd is a former top counterterrorism official at both the CIA and the FBI. As he sees it, any talk of al-Qaida's demise is premature.
"We know it is over when we see people who don't cite al-Qaida ideology for attempting to acquire weapons and conduct attacks," Mudd says. "There are still kids out there who say, 'I want to be a member.' "
The gunman who was responsible for France's worst terrorist attacks in years would fall into that category. He had never been trained by al-Qaida, but he embraced the group's ideology. In March, he killed three Jewish children, a rabbi and three paratroopers in a killing spree that ended in a shootout at his apartment in Toulouse.
Investigators were not able to find any direct link between the shooter and al-Qaida aside from his perusing jihadi chat rooms and perusing the group's propaganda on the Web. Interestingly, he claimed that he was actually a member of al-Qaida. Technically, in terms of the organization, he wasn't. Ideologically, however, he was.
Mudd says that's the kind of terrorism we should expect from al-Qaida now that bin Laden is dead: ideologically driven lone actors.
"Ideology dies a slow death," Mudd says. "Ideas have a half-life of years or decades, and this idea [of al-Qaida-ism] is quite deeply rooted, I think, in extremist circles. For an idea to be uprooted, it takes not a year or [even] a couple of years. We're only 10 years into this. Operationally, that is a long time; ideologically it is not. Another 10 years maybe, and we ought to be done."
In the meantime, intelligence officials keeping tabs on the group's core operation are focused on three things: whether al-Qaida is able to recruit new members; whether the group can raise money; and whether Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's successor, has any command or control over the people who are killing in the name of his organization.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Renee Montagne is on assignment in Afghanistan. I'm David Greene.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
One year ago today, only a few people knew the truth. Navy SEALS were boarding helicopters and heading for Pakistan. Across the border was a compound U.S. intelligence had been watching. Inside that compound, they thought the world's most famous terrorist was hiding.
GREENE: One year later, Osama bin Laden is dead. And U.S. intelligence agencies are still listening to phone calls or peering at distant houses. They want to know how bin Laden's group, al-Qaida, has changed.
President Obama's counterterrorism chief is John Brennan.
JOHN BRENNAN: The death of bin Laden was our most strategic blow yet against al-Qaida. And for the first time since this fight began, we can look ahead and envision a world in which the al-Qaida core is simply no longer relevant.
INSKEEP: Note that he said al-Qaida's core could become irrelevant. The group's ideas may well go on, as NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Ever since the death of bin Laden, the intelligence community has changed the way it looks at al-Qaida. Officials now divide their analysis of the group into two distinct categories. The first is al-Qaida as an organization - how the group's core is faring. And the second is al-Qaida as a movement, whether it continues to attract followers to its ideology.
Officials say that a year after bin Laden's death, the organization is almost dead. It's the movement that worries them.
DANIEL BYMAN: The mother al-Qaida is a couple hundred people. And it's certainly shown it's capable, it's lethal. But its real army, if you will, are these affiliate groups.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Daniel Byman is a fellow at the Brookings Institution. And he explains the metamorphosis of al-Qaida and how the threat has shifted from the core group to its affiliates.
BYMAN: A number of groups around the globe have taken on the al-Qaida label and this trend actually seems to be accelerating. And so we see groups that primarily had a local agenda, a local focus, local fighters having somewhat of an al-Qaida flavor to them.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Yemen is the example that gets the most attention, but there are others. Consider a group in Nigeria called Boko Haram. It's been in the headlines recently for attacking Christian targets in Nigeria, mostly churches and schools. Right now the Boko Haram attacks are local and they target non-Muslims.
What intelligence officials are watching for is whether that changes, whether al-Qaida's new leadership can take groups like that and get them to embrace a global agenda and attack Western targets.
Phil Mudd is a former top counterterrorism official from the CIA and the FBI. And he says the battle against al-Qaida is far from over.
PHIL MUDD: We know it's over when we see people who don't cite al-Qaida ideology for attempting to acquire weapons and conduct attacks. There are still kids out there who say, I want to be a member.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The gunman who was responsible for France's worst terror attacks in years would fall into that category. He'd never been trained by al-Qaida but he embraced the group's ideology. He claimed to be an al-Qaida member and in March killed three Jewish children, a rabbi, and three paratroopers.
Mudd says that's the kind of terrorism we should expect from al-Qaida now that bin Laden is dead.
MUDD: But ideology has a slow death. Ideas have a half life of years or decades. And this idea was quite deeply rooted, I think, in extremist circles. For an idea to be uprooted to me takes not a year, not a couple of years. We're only 10 years into this - operationally that's a long time. Ideologically it's not. Another 10 years, maybe, and we ought to be done.
TEMPLE-RASTON: In the meantime, intelligence officials are continuing to keep a close eye on the group's core operation. And they are focused on three things: whether al-Qaida is able to recruit new members, whether it can raise money, and whether Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's successor, has any command or control over the people who are killing in the name of al-Qaida.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.