US counterterrorism officials are increasingly convinced that the killing of Osama bin Laden and the toll of seven years of CIA drone strikes have pushed al Qaeda to the brink of collapse.
The assessment reflects a widespread view at the CIA and other agencies that a relatively small number of additional blows could effectively extinguish the Pakistan-based organisation that carried out the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — an outcome that was seen as a distant prospect for much of the past decade.US officials said that al Qaeda might yet rally and that even its demise would not end the terrorist threat, which is increasingly driven by radicalised individuals as well as aggressive affiliates. Indeed, officials said that al Qaeda’s offshoot in Yemen is now seen as a greater counterterrorism challenge than the organisation’s traditional base.
President Barack Obama has steadily expanded the clandestine US campaign against that Yemen group, most recently by approving the construction of a secret Persian Gulf airstrip for armed CIA drones. But recent setbacks, including a botched US military airstrike on American-born radical cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi, underscore the difficulties that remain.
Nevertheless, the top US national security officials now allude to a potential finish line in the fight against al Qaeda, a notion they played down before bin Laden was killed by US forces in a raid in Pakistan.
Defence secretary Leon E. Panetta declared during a recent visit to Afghanistan that “we’re within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda.” The comment was dismissed by skeptics as an attempt to energise troops while defending the administration’s decision to wind down a decade-old war.
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