For the first time counter-terrorism officials have begun to "envision the demise of al Qaeda," top U.S. counter-terror official John Brennan said today while unveiling the White House's counter-terrorism strategy.
Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counter-Terrorism, described how U.S. and allied counter-terrorist efforts have battered al Qaeda, killing top leadership, strangling their finances around the globe and, in effect, leaving Osama bin Laden as a discouraged recluse before he was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs on May 2.
"We have affected al Qaeda's ability to attract new recruits. We've made it harder for them to hide and to transfer money, and pushed al Qaeda's finances to its weakest point in years. Along with our partners in Pakistan and Yemen, we've shown al Qaeda that it will enjoy no safe haven, and we have made it harder than ever for them to move, to communicate, to train and to plot." he said. "If we hit al Qaeda hard enough and often enough, there will come a time when they simply can no longer replenish their ranks with skilled leaders that they need to sustain their operations. That is the direction in which we're headed today.
"Taken together, the progress I've described allows us, for the first time, to envision the demise of al Qaeda's core leadership in the coming years. It will take time, but make no mistake: al Qaeda is in its decline," he said.
Brennan said that before the notorious terror leader's death, bin Laden was frustrated by his operators' inability to carry out major attacks.
"It's clear from the material that were recovered from the bin Laden compound that bin Laden himself recognized that they really were being pummeled. He wanted to carry out attacks, and he was frustrated with a lot of his commanders, that they weren't carrying out these attacks." Brennan said. "The commanders were saying to him, you know, 'Sorry, we'd love to be able to do it, but we can't…your aspirations outpace our capabilities.'"
Brennan also said that bin Laden was apparently concerned about the PR war with the West and considered efforts to rebrand the group by changing its name.
"Bin Laden clearly sensed that al Qaeda is losing the larger battle for hearts and minds. He knew that al Qaeda's murder of so many innocent civilians, most of them Muslims, had deeply and perhaps permanently tarnished al Qaeda's image in the world. He knew that he had failed to portray America as being at war with Islam," Brennan said. "He worried that our recent focus on al Qaeda as an enemy had prevented more Muslims from rallying to his cause, so much so that he even considered changing al Qaeda's name."
Despite significant counter-terrorism developments against core al Qaeda recently, Brennan warned that the group remains viable and dangerous -- especially al Qaeda's affiliates in Yemen and Somalia.
Brennan underscored that in the wake of bin Laden's death, the U.S.'s relationship with one of its allies in the War on Terror, Pakistan, remains rocky at times but is critical to U.S. interests in the region.
"As frustrating as this relationship can sometimes be, Pakistan has been absolutely critical to many of our most significant successes against al Qaeda," he said.
Brennan on New al Qaeda Leader: Ayman al-Zawahiri
Another significant threat to the homeland, Brennan said, was al Qaeda-inspired lone wolf attackers.
"This is the first counter-terrorism strategy that focuses on the ability of al Qaeda and its network to inspire people in the United States to attack us from within," Brennan said.
Discussing the rise of bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to the leadership role of the terror network Brennan warned he "may very well attempt to demonstrate his leadership and al Qaida may try to show its relevance through new attacks."
Brennan said that al Qaeda affiliates, such as al-Shabaab in Somalia and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, still pose a "serious direct threat" to the U.S.
As the U.S. begins the drawdown of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan Brennan said that working with foreign security forces, more targeted operations with special forces and drone strikes will be employed. "Going forward, we will be mindful that if our nation is threatened, our best offense won't always be deploying large armies abroad, but rather delivering targeted, surgical pressure to the groups that threaten us," he said.
Beyond al Qaeda, Brennan said the White House's counter-terror strategy will not necessarily target other groups designated as terror organizations but could put pressure on nations accused of supporting such groups.
"Our strategy is not designed to combat directly every single terrorist organization in every corner of the world, many of which have neither the intent nor the capability to ever attack the United States or our citizens," he said. "Our strategy recognizes that there are numerous nations and groups that support terrorism in order to oppose U.S. interests. Iran and Syria remain leading state sponsors of terrorism... So we will therefore continue to use the full range of our foreign-policy tools to prevent these regimes and terrorist organizations from endangering our national security."
In the meantime, Brennan said al Qaeda, the terror organization that has been a main focus of U.S. counter-terror efforts for nearly a decade, appears to be weakened and on its way out, similar to the way he described bin Laden shortly before his death.
"And we are left with that final image seen around the world -- an old terrorist, alone, hunched over in a blanket, flipping through old videos of a man and a movement that history is fast leaving behind," he said.