Compiled by CNN's Tim Lister
Today's Security Brief includes:
* Al Qaeda central "close to collapse"
* Mayor of Kandahar assassinated – latest in series of killings
* Breivik's online favorites
* Breivik manual may help others make bombs
* UK recognizes TNC as Libyan govt
* Hill hearings dominated by fears for defense readiness
* "40" Americans fighting for Shabaab in Somalia, says Rep King
Al Qaeda "close to collapse"
TheWashingtonPost.com reports: U.S. counterterrorism officials are increasingly convinced that the killing of Osama bin Laden and the toll of seven years of CIA drone strikes have pushed alQaeda to the brink of collapse.
The assessment reflects a widespread view at the CIA and other agencies that a relatively small number of additional blows could effectively extinguish the Pakistan-based organization that carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — an outcome that was seen as a distant prospect for much of the past decade.
U.S. officials said that al-Qaeda might yet rally and that even its demise would not end the terrorist threat, which is increasingly driven by radicalized individuals as well as aggressive affiliates. Indeed, officials said that al-Qaeda’s offshoot in Yemen is now seen as a greater counterterrorism challenge than the organization’s traditional base.
President Obama has steadily expanded the clandestine U.S. campaign against that Yemen group, most recently by approving the construction of a secret Persian Gulf airstrip for armed CIA drones. But recent setbacks, including a botched US military strike on US born radical cleric Anwar al Awlaki underscore the difficulties that remain.
Nevertheless, the top U.S. national security officials now allude to a potential finish line in the fight against al-Qaeda, a notion they played down before bin Laden's death.
** The leader of al-Qaeda's Yemeni offshoot pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden's successor, vowing to fight together to liberate the holy places of Islam. In an audio message on militant websites affiliated with al-Qaeda, Nasser al-Wahishi says his group — al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — recognized Ayman al-Zawahri as the new chief of al-Qaeda. Al-Zawahri took over after the death of bin Laden in a U.S. raid in May.
Assassination of Kandahar mayor latest in series
From CNN's Matiullah Mati: The mayor of Afghanistan's restive southern city of Kandahar was killed in a suicide bomb attack Wednesday, in what is the latest in a series of high profile assassinations the Taliban have taken credit for.
Ghulam Haidar died while at a city hall meeting in the provincial capital, said Zalmai Ayoubi, a spokesman for the Kandahar governor's office.
"The suicide attacker placed an explosive device in his turban and detonated it inside the city meeting hall," Ayoubi said. One civilian was also injured in the attack. It is the second time in less than two weeks that a senior official was killed by suicide bombers placing explosives in their turbans.
Speaking to the media for the first time since being formally sworn in Monday, Ryan Crocker - America's freshly appointed ambassador to Afghanistan - said the United States condemns "in the strongest possible terms the assassination of another senior Afghan government official."
“I would judge that the Taliban is now damaged to the point where they can no longer conduct large-scale operations. They’ve had to kind of regroup and figure out what they can do, and in some cases that has been assassination,” Crocker told reporters at the embassy. “Clearly, these are horrific attacks but they can also be interpreted as a sign of significant organizational weakness on the part of the adversary.”
The Taliban have claimed responsibility for the assassination, but it may have been the result of a long-running feud over home demolitions.
The New York Times adds: Mr. Hamidi had launched a contentious campaign to destroy illegal homes in northern Kandahar city. The campaign was strongly resisted by the people who lived there, many of whom had been there for years. A day earlier, there had been a protest and the mayor agreed to meet with the protesters on Wednesday.
The bomber entered the mayor’ s compound with the protesters’ delegation, said Mr. Ayoubi, a spokesman for the Kandahar provincial governor, Toorylai Wesa.
"Mayor Ghulam Haider Hamidi was a real person who was loyal to his people and country," Mr. Wesa told a news conference. "He knew how to do his job and dedicated his life in the service of the people. He was trying to rebuild Kandahar."
Death of a Special Ops soldier
Army Master Sgt. Benjamin A. Stevenson, 36, was on his tenth tour of duty in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq when he was killed Thursday in a remote area of eastern Afghanistan.
Few details are available on the circumstances that led to the death of the highly decorated soldier, from Canyon Lake, Texas.
However, a U.S. military official has now confirmed to CNN that Stevenson was the only U.S. casualty of a brutal two-day firefight against an al Qaeda-related group that erupted when U.S. and Afghan troops attacked an insurgent encampment, killing nearly 80 foreign fighters.
From CNN's Tim Lister: The blogs and websites Breivik enthused about were pro-American and pro-Israel, extremely hostile to Islam and despairing that the European political elite would ever see the error of its liberal multicultural outlook.
One such site is Gates of Vienna, whose banner reads: "At the siege of Vienna in 1683 Islam seemed poised to overrun Christian Europe. We are in a new phase of a very old war."
Breivik regularly applauded a writer who goes by the name of Fjordman on the site, one of whose contributions, from 2007, reads: "When the Swedish welfare state collapses, the immigrants who lose their payments will have to go somewhere. Denmark will probably be fairly successful at keeping them out. A lot of them will migrate to Norway, some will move to Germany and the Netherlands, and some will probably end up in Eastern Europe."
Breivik also praised Fjordman's book, "Defeating Eurabia," describing it as "the perfect Christmas gift for family and friends."
No evidence of Breivik links with English far-right
There is no evidence of links between mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik and the English far-right, according to Norway's domestic intelligence chief.
Janne Kristiansen, director of the Norwegian Police Security Service, said no proof has yet been found to link the 32-year-old gunman to right-wing extremists in the UK.
It has been widely reported the man who admitted killing 76 people in twin attacks in Oslo and Utoya on Friday had made internet postings on British nationalist websites.
But Ms Kristiansen said: "I can tell you, at this moment in time, we don't have evidence or we don't have indications that he has been part of a broader movement or that he has been in connection with other cells or that there are other cells."
Breivik's bomb-making manual poses new risks
From CNN Terrorism Analyst Paul Cruickshank: Several hundred pages of his 1500 page 'manifesto' contain a detailed how-to guide for would-be terrorists, based on his own lengthy preparations for the attack that devastated Norway Friday.
Counter-terrorism specialists fear that the document, now widely accessible on the internet, could be useful to a range of terrorist groups, including pro al Qaeda militants plotting attacks against the West.
The manifesto includes instructions on reconnaissance and counter-surveillance, and detailed instructions for buying and constructing the components of a fertilizer-based device based on Breivik’s own experience. Breivik even included a detailed log describing how he put together the device.
Joran Kallmyr of Norway's Progress Party said he met Anders Behring Breivik several times at local party meetings.
Libya stalemate – on talks and on the battlefield
A U.N envoy trying to find a way to end the war in Libya said after talks with the prime minister in Tripoli on Tuesday that the government and the rebels remained far apart in the drive for an end to the crisis.
The government told him NATO must end air strikes before any talks could begin and that Muammar Gaddafi's role as leader was non-negotiable, though rebels and the West insist he step down.
Britain and France, carrying out most of the NATO bombing attacks, dropped their insistence that Gaddafi leave Libya as part of any settlement, in an apparent softening of their line.
A compromise appeared even more distant after Gaddafi called the rebels "traitors" and said they had no legitimacy, in a defiant audio speech aired live on Libyan television during a pro-government demonstration in Al Khums, 120 km (80 miles) east of Tripoli.
** At a pro-Gadhafi forum in Tripoli on Tuesday afternoon, the Lockerbie bomber appeared on Libyan state television. Abdelbaset Ali al Megrahi was the only person convicted over the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103, which killed 270 people. He was released from a Scottish prison in 2009 on the grounds that he had cancer and was not likely to live more than three more months. Appearing frail, in a wheelchair and with a facemask under his chin, he was introduced to the rally as a victim of a conspiracy.
UK recognizes TNC as Libyan government
The United Kingdom recognizes Libya's rebel National Transitional Council, not Moammar Gadhafi's regime, as the legitimate government, Foreign Secretary William Hague said Wednesday.
"We are dealing with them as if they are the state of Libya and that is how we are treating them," Hague said. His announcement came shortly after the Foreign Office said it had expelled all Libyan Embassy staff from the country.
Hague reiterated his stance that Moammar Gadhafi could remain in Libya if he leaves power, but added that the best thing would be for him to face justice at the International Criminal Court, which is seeking his arrest.
Prime Minister al-Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi said Gadhafi's future would be decided only by Libyans.
"With all due respect to the foreign minister of Great Britain, he cannot decide on behalf of the Libyan people," al-Mahmoudi said. "What is important to us is what Libyans decide, not what William Hague decides."
Losing patience over Libya
The goal of the U.S. and NATO-launched attacks has been to prevent Gadhafi's forces from waging war on the Libyan people by destroying his weapons, equipment, and military command and control centers. And if Gadhafi himself happened to be caught up in one of these airstrikes, so be it.
But after four months, some on Capitol Hill are starting to lose patience.
"I mean, he is hanging on, and I've often said that the sooner he is removed, [the] quicker this gets resolved," says Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
"Harsh words, I know," Rogers says, "but the longer this stalemate goes, then you have people selling weapons caches for cash. You have chemical stockpiles that look pretty tempting. There's a lot of buyers on the black market for that stuff."
Anthony Cordesman, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the clock has been working against NATO forces.
"When you let something fester this long and you have an extremely weak rebel force, Gadhafi's forces have time to adapt," Cordesman says. "They use different weapons; they become far less visible targets; they start relying on land mines; they have more time in which to try to divide the people and intimidate."
Yemen military defections
Yemen Post reports: Two divisions from the Central Security and the Republican Guard joined the popular youth-led revolution on Tuesday.
A spokesman for the defectors said their move came to demonstrate their refusal to destructive and bloody orientations of the remaining officials within the Saleh regime who refuse peaceful solutions to the situation in Yemen.
He expressed their readiness to defend the peaceful revolution, expecting the coming days will see more defections to the uprising. Meantime, informed sources said that the Central Security leadership had ordered its members in Yemeni cities to avoid going to the streets in their uniform to prevent them from joining the popular revolution.
Syrian activists meet in Turkey
Syrian activists are meeting in Turkey for what they claim is the first meeting of its kind since the uprising began, AFP reports.
Bahiya Mardini, who heads the Cairo-based Arab Free Speech Committee, said the Istanbul meeting will focus on "developing the coordination between activists and working groups of the revolution."
** At least eight people, including an 11-year-old boy, were killed outside the Syrian capital of Damascus by gunshots from security forces, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The incident occurred in Kanaker, according to the group's Rami Abdul-Rahman. The bloodshed follows days of violent government crackdowns on protests across the country, including the cities of Aleppo, Deir Ezzor, and Douma.
Worries over defense budget cuts as US prosecutes two wars
At a hearing to confirm General Martin Dempsey as Chairman of the JCOS: "What concerns me most about our current debate is that the defense cuts being discussed have little or no strategic or military rationale to support them," Republican Senator John McCain said. "Our national defense planning and spending must be driven by considered strategy not arbitrary arithmetic."
Across the aisle, Senator Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the committee said "the fiscal realities that confront the nation will put tremendous pressures on the Defense Department's budget. Those fiscal realities require us, when considering defense planning and programs, to take into consideration historic budgetary constraints."
Dempsey testified that this budget debate is an anomaly. "What makes this period different is we're doing all this while we're still actively engaged in conflict and we have young men and women in harm's way. And that – that adds a degree of complexity and a degree of uncertainty that I think we can't discount."
Reuters adds: Top generals at a hearing in the House of Representatives echoed Dempsey's concerns about deep budget cuts. General Joseph Dunford, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, said his service would have "challenges" in implementing its share of a $400 billion cut.
"I think if they were to exceed $400 billion we would start to have to make some fundamental changes in the capability of the Marine Corps," Dunford said. That would mean a smaller force and a reassessment of its strategic mission.
General Philip Breedlove, vice chief of staff of the Air Force, said cuts of $400 billion would cause "quite some concern" about funds to replace its aging fleet. Strategic bombers are an average 34 years old, refueling tankers 47 years old and airlift planes 19.
"We have decided we will not go hollow" by keeping a large infrastructure the Air Force cannot afford to staff or maintain, Breedlove said, describing walking down a flight line in the 1970s and seeing planes without engines.
"We had maintained a certain amount of infrastructure in iron, but it was unflyable," he said. "We can't afford to go there with the requirements of ... today. So a $400 billion cut would force us to constrict our force in order to maintain a ready and fit force to fight."
Is the government using cellular data to track Americans as they move around the U.S.?
Wall Street Journal reports: According to the general counsel of the National Security Agency, it may have that authority. Matthew Olsen, who is currently at the NSA and has been nominated to lead the National Counterterrorism Center, discussed the possibility at a confirmation hearing Tuesday morning in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
"There are certain circumstances where that authority may exist," he said. His comments came after Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) asked him several times whether the government has the authority to "use cell site data to track the location of Americans inside the country."
Although Olsen acknowledged the possibility, he also said "it is a very complicated question" and that the intelligence community is working on a memo that will provide a better answer for the committee.
"40" Americans fighting for Shabaab in Somalia
Associated Press: The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee says more than 40 Americans have been recruited by al-Qaida-linked terrorists in Somalia and have gone there to fight.
U.S. counterterrorism officials have not reported such high numbers of Americans joining the Somali terror organization, al-Shabab. The government has said at least 21 Somali-Americans are believed to have traveled to Somalia to join the terror group in what began as a push to expel Ethiopian soldiers. Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the double suicide bomb attack in Uganda's capital last year, and members have aligned themselves with other anti-Western terror groups.
New York Republican Rep. Peter King's findings are based on his committee's investigation into the threat.
** Tension is reported to be very high in parts of Middle Shabelle region in southern Somalia as al Shabab fighters and local clan militias are to take on each other, reports say on Wednesday.
The tension erupted in village of Ad Adey near Jowhar town about 90 kilometers north of Mogadishu after Al shabaab fighters ordered the local residents to contribute some camels to their war against the transitional federal government and AMISOM or every family to bring a boy taking part in the war.
Uzbek in Alabama charged with threatening Obama
A 21-year-old man from Uzbekistan was indicted Tuesday and charged with threatening to kill President Barack Obama. Authorities say Ulugbek Kodirov was in the U.S. illegally after his student visa was revoked and had obtained a machine gun and a grenade.
Kodirov was charged with four counts of threatening the president and others weapons charges, the Justice Department said Tuesday. He was arrested on July 13 in a motel in Leeds, Alabama, after he obtained the machine gun from an undercover agent.
Germans face terror charges in UK
Two German men who were arrested at the port of Dover earlier this month have been charged with terrorism offenses. Christian David Erkart Heinz Emde, 28, and Robert Baum, 23, have been charged with offenses under the Terrorism Act. They are accused of collecting or possessing information likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.