EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the latest in a series of stories and opinion pieces previewing the upcoming Aspen Security Forum. Security Clearance is a media sponsor of the event which is taking place from July 17-20 in Aspen, Colorado. Follow the event on Twitter under @aspeninstitute and @natlsecuritycnn #AspenSecurity. John McLaughlin was a CIA officer for 32 years and served as deputy director and acting director from 2000-2004. He currently teaches at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.
From John McLaughlin, Special for CNN
Terrorism experts inside and outside the government have been caught up in a debate about how close we may be to defeating al Qaeda and associated groups. As events have demonstrated so vividly in recent years, we are living in an era of continuous surprise, making this one of those questions that cannot be answered with confidence.
What can be said with absolute confidence is that today’s al Qaeda is fundamentally different from the one we knew for years. It has evolved from the hierarchical organization of September 2001 into what might be called a “network of networks.”
Interconnected, loosely-structured organizations are run by a series of al Qaeda affiliates scattered across the arc of South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. Some declare fealty to Osama bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, while others merely take inspiration from the legacy his organization represents.
By Barbara Starr
The Obama administration is still searching through incoming intelligence reports to look for specific evidence to confirm that jihadist Moktar Belmoktar was killed in a raid by Chad military on a jihadist base in northeastern Mali, a senior U.S. official tells CNN.
"We don't have enough evidence to support the claim" made by Chad, the official said. But he emphasized the U.S. is taking it seriously and "not dismissing it out of hand."
"We want to have a level of certainty about it before we say it’s true, and we are not there yet," the official said.
He emphasized the U.S. will be looking at the broadest range of intelligence information it can to try to verify Belmoktar's death. "We'll be looking at things you can't even think of," he said. FULL POST
By Barbara Starr
U.S. officials believe extremists across northern Africa, emboldened by the terror attack on a natural gas plant in Algeria, are growing more daring.
A senior American intelligence official tells CNN that "what we have seen is intelligence suggesting a desire to carry out more attacks" against western and U.S. interests in the region.
The United States is not aware of any specific threats, the official said.
But one of those believed to be plotting is Moktar Belmoktar, a veteran militant who has claimed responsibility for the attack this month on the BP facility in eastern Algeria that left at least 37 hostages dead.
By Paul Cruickshank
The deadly attack on the In Amenas gas facility in southern Algeria could herald a power struggle within al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, which is fast becoming one of the most dangerous branches of the organization.
The attack was claimed by veteran Algerian jihadist Moktar Belmoktar, who last year was forced out of AQIM's leadership by its emir, Abdelmalek Droukdel. Their rivalry has been aggravated by geographic distance, disagreement over jihadist doctrine, and - above all - personal ambition. At one point, Droukdel tried to have Belmoktar assassinated, a former jihadist from the region told CNN.
The rift between them not only led Belmoktar to mastermind one of the most serious terrorist attacks in North Africa in years, but may also dictate the future course of jihad in the region, the sources say.
In September, Droukdel "fired" Belmoktar from the AQIM leadership, and he responded by setting up what one of his close associates described as a new trans-Saharan franchise of al Qaeda. Nearly all the men under his command were said to have followed Belmoktar out of AQIM.
In December, Belmoktar announced the formation of a new commando unit called "We Sign with Blood," and he promised attacks against Western interests in the region and the home soil of Western countries if an operation was launched against jihadists in northern Mali.
The name of the new commando unit was first used by a unit of an Algerian militant outfit that hijacked a French airliner in 1994, according to Camille Tawil, a Lebanese expert on al Qaeda. FULL POST
By Jamie Crawford and Chris Lawrence
The United States has signed a deal with the central African nation of Niger to host American troops and surveillance drones to keep tabs on Islamic militants in the region, officials from those countries said Tuesday.
Niger is next door to Mali, where France joined the fight against Islamic rebels earlier this month
Pentagon spokesman George Little said the role of U.S. troops in Niger "has not yet been defined" - but Niger's ambassador to the United States, Maman Sidikou, told CNN that his government has agreed to let U.S. drones operate from its territory.
Sidikou says his understanding of the agreement is the drones will be unarmed and used for surveillance to monitor extremist movements. He refused to discuss where in the country the drones would be based or when they will be operational.
Niger lies to the east of Mali, where French troops and warplanes are fighting alongside government troops to push back Islamist fighters who seized much of the former French colony in 2012.
The rebels took advantage of the chaos that followed a revolt by Touareg separatists and a military coup, and banned music, smoking, drinking and watching televised sports in the territories under their control. FULL POST
By Ingrid Formanek and Dana Ford
The United States is intensifying its involvement in Mali, where local and French forces are battling Islamic militants.
It will support the French military by conducting aerial refueling missions, according to the Pentagon, which released a short statement Saturday following a call between Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
"The leaders also discussed plans for the United States to transport troops from African nations, including Chad and Togo, to support the international effort in Mali. Secretary Panetta and Minister Le Drian resolved to remain in close contact as aggressive operations against terrorist networks in Mali are ongoing," it read.
U.S. policy prohibits direct military aid to Mali because the fledgling government is the result of a coup. No support can go to the Malian military directly until leaders are chosen through an election.FULL STORY
By Barbara Starr
The Obama Administration now believes the attack and hostage-taking at a natural gas plant in Algeria last week is the work of al Qaeda operatives based out of northern Mali.
U.S. officials say al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was behind the attack and may also have operated a communications network from northern Mali. Despite the recent French intervention, large areas of Mali remain in the hands of jihadist groups.
One senior U.S. official said "elements of AQIM" may have carried out the offensive in tandem with fighters loyal to Moktar Belmoktar, a veteran militant based in northern Mali who has claimed responsibility for the assault.
Last year, Belmoktar was said to have been demoted by the Emir of AQIM, Abdel Malek Droukdel, but is thought to have retained links to the organization.
One U.S. official told CNN that American intelligence gatherers are trying to determine if the two factions had reunited for the attack. If so, that would indicate greater communications among North African elements of al Qaeda affiliates and splinter groups than previously thought.
By Jill Dougherty
In order for its offensive against Islamists in Mali to succeed, France needs the assistance of the United States and other countries, a French official told CNN.
"We really need the help of everybody and when countries such as Morocco and Algeria are opening their skies to our planes," the official said. "That's crucial because that's a mark of full solidarity for our mission - which is needed, it's really needed."
Mali was one of the most successful democracies in Africa until last year, when a coup toppled the president and Islamists capitalized on the chaos by establishing themselves in the north. There, they imposed a strict interpretation of Sharia law by banning music, smoking, drinking and watching sports on television. They also damaged Timbuktu's historic tombs and shrines.
The International Criminal Court has launched a war crimes investigation amid reports that residents have been mutilated and killed for disobeying the Islamists. The United Nations has noted accounts of amputations, floggings and public executions such as the July stoning of a couple who had reportedly had an affair.
By Tim Lister
Within the past few days, French combat forces have deployed to the West African state of Mali to halt the advance of militant Islamist fighters toward the capital and to help the Malian army begin to reclaim towns previously occupied by the militants. After intense airstrikes against rebel strongholds, French ground forces are moving north to try to dislodge the fighters.
Mali is one of the poorest countries in Africa, a vast and sparsely populated land that is largely desert. But events there are being watched with growing anxiety throughout West Africa, in European capitals and in Washington. here are six reasons why.FULL STORY
By Laura Smith-Spark and Yousuf Basil
Islamists attacked a gas field in eastern Algeria, killing two people and seizing hostages, including Westerners, Algeria's interior minister said Wednesday.
The incident may be linked to France's military support for the government of nearby Mali, according to reports from the region.
The Westerners, accompanied by Algerian security forces, were en route to In Amenas Airport when they were attacked early in the morning by a group of no more than 20 people, the official, Diho Weld Qabliyeh, told Algerian state television. The security forces returned fire, and the attackers withdrew to the base of the petroleum operation, some 3 kilometers away, he said.
Upon arrival at the base, he continued, the attackers "took in a number of Westerners and Algerians - some people told us they were nine, some people told us 12."
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Americans were among the hostages.
Accounts over the number differed.
Read the full CNN.com story here.