WASHINGTON — A year after the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida is hobbled and hunted, too busy surviving for the moment to carry out another Sept. 11-style attack on U.S. soil.
But the terrorist network dreams still of payback, and U.S. counterterrorist officials warn that, in time, its offshoots may deliver.
A decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that has cost the U.S. about $1.28 trillion and 6,300 U.S. troops’ lives has forced al-Qaida’s affiliates to regroup, from Yemen to Iraq.
Bin Laden’s No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri, is thought to be hiding, out of U.S. reach, in Pakistan’s mountains, just as bin Laden was for so many years.
“It’s wishful thinking to say al-Qaida is on the brink of defeat,” said Seth Jones, a Rand analyst and adviser to U.S. special operations forces. “They have increased global presence, the number of attacks by affiliates has risen, and in some places like Yemen, they’ve expanded control of territory.”
It’s a complicated, somewhat murky picture for Americans to grasp. U.S. officials said bin Laden’s old team is all but dismantled. But they say new branches are hitting Western targets and U.S. allies overseas, and still aspire to match their parent organization’s milestone of Sept. 11, 2001.
The deadliest is in Yemen. “They are continuing to try to again carry out an attack against U.S. persons inside of Yemen, as well as against the homeland,” White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “We’re working very closely with our Yemeni partners to track down all these leads,” he said.
Brennan said there’s no sign of an active revenge plot against U.S. targets, but U.S. citizens in Pakistan and beyond are being warned to be vigilant ahead of the Wednesday anniversary of the night raid. U.S. helicopters swooped down on bin Laden’s compound in the Pakistani army town of Abbottabad, killing him, one of his sons, two couriers and their wives.
The last view for Americans of the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks was that of a wizened old man sitting in front of an old television, wrapped in a blanket.
The world might never see photographic proof of his death. U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg in Washington ruled last week that the Obama administration, under the Freedom of Information Act, would not have to turn over images of bin Laden during or after the raid.
Bin Laden’s killing and al-Qaida’s stumbling efforts to regroup are now the national security centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.
The White House frequently cites the president’s decision to approve the raid, with only a 50-50 chance that bin Laden was even at the compound.
Obama could have gone down in history as the man who put the Navy SEALs and the relationship with Pakistan in jeopardy while failing to catch the al-Qaida leader.
“Al-Qaida was and is our No. 1 enemy,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said last week. “So it’s a part of his foreign policy record, obviously, but it’s also part of a very serious endeavor to keep our country safe.”
U.S. officials say al-Qaida is less able to carry out a complex attack like Sept. 11 and they rule out al-Qaida’s ability to attack with weapons of mass destruction in the coming year. These officials spoke on condition of anonymity because, they said, publicly identifying themselves could make them a target of the terrorist group.