The leadership ranks of the main al-Qaeda terrorist network, once expansive enough to supervise the plot for Sep 11, 2001, have been reduced to just two figures whose demise would mean the group’s defeat, US officials said.
Ayman al-Zawahiri and his second in command, Abu Yahya al-Libi, are the last remaining “high-value” targets of the CIA’s drone campaign against al Qaeda in Pakistan, US officials said, although lower-level fighters and other insurgent groups remain a focus of Predator surveillance and strikes.
The CIA has resisted moving operatives, drones or other resources away from Pakistan more than temporarily, largely because CIA director David H Petraeus and other senior officials — mindful that al Qaeda has regrouped in the past — think their unfinished priority is to extinguish the network’s base.
“Now is not the time to let up the pressure,” said a US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “We’ve got an opportunity to keep them down, and letting up now could allow them to regenerate.”
US officials who described al Qaeda as being on the verge of defeat after Osama bin Laden was killed said they have been surprised by the pace and extent of the group’s contraction in the six months since then. They said that Zawahiri is a more pragmatic leader than his predecessor, with a firmer grasp of the ground-level difficulties faced by the organisation’s remaining followers in Pakistan.
For that reason, much of the pressure of rebuilding may fall to his lieutenant, Libi, who is considered a more dynamic figure. Because of Libi’s stature and communication skills, Jarret Brachman, a former CIA analyst, described him as al Qaeda’s “last best hope for any global resurgence.”
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