Predictions about al-Qaeda's imminent collapse threaten to lull the U.S. into a false sense of complacency about the continued threat the terror network represents, a recently retired top counter-terrorism aide said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta declared during a recent visit to Afghanistan that "we're within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda," a sentiment that members of the intelligence and defense community cautiously endorsed in a Washington Post article given the death of Osama bin Laden and the effectiveness of drone strikes in decimating al-Qaeda's core leadership. But Michael Leiter, who stepped down three weeks ago from his role as head of the National Counterterrorism Center, said that statements suggesting al-Qaeda is on the verge of being neutralized lack "accuracy and precision."
"The core organization is still there and could launch some attacks," Leiter said, adding that offshoots of al-Qaeda in Yemen and Somalia represent a growing threat beyond the organization's traditional base in Pakistan. Although he acknowledged that al-Qaida is "on the ropes," he warned that it is still capable of carrying out smaller attacks -- in fact, he said that some instances of terrorism are all but inevitable.
"The American people do need to understand that at least the smaller-scale terrorist attacks are with us for the foreseeable future," he said.
Leiter also issued a warning about the Central Intelligence Agency taking on an augmented role in coordinating counterterrorism strikes in countries like Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, something that he said could diminish the organization's traditional role of analysis and intelligence gathering. As American troops begin their slow exit from Afghanistan, American counterterrorism policy will increasingly feature covert, targeted attacks -- many of them using unmanned drones -- that are often overseen by CIA agents. Leiter said that agents who become accustomed to the rush of participating in those operations may be loathe to return to an office.
"Suddenly you find yourself at a desk in Washington working in a pretty big bureaucracy and you say: 'This is what I'm stuck with for another 30 years? You've got to be kidding me," he said.