By Sr. National Security Producer Pam Benson
Al Qaeda's ability to carry out operations from its Pakistan base could be eliminated within the next two years, according to Michael Vickers, the U.S. undersecretary of defense for intelligence.
Vickers told a conference at the National Defense University this week that, "Assuming sustained CT (counterterrorism) operations against the group, within 18 to 24 months, core al Qaeda cohesion and operational capabilities could be degraded to the point that the group could fragment and exist mostly as a propaganda arm and power could devolve to regional affiliates."
This marks the first time a senior U.S. official has put a time frame on the end of the threat of attack posed by al Qaeda's senior leadership operating in the ungoverned areas of Pakistan.
On his first trip to Afghanistan as defense secretary in July, Leon Panetta told reporters that the United States was "within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda." He said the successful operation to take out Osama bin Laden and the identification of other key al Qaeda leaders put the United States in a better position.
"If we can be successful at going after them, I think we can really undermine their ability to do any kind of planning, to be able to conduct any kind of attack" on the United States. "That's why I think it's within reach. Is it going to take some more work? You bet it is. But I think it's within reach," Panetta said.
In his speech on Tuesday, Vickers said al Qaeda's leaders "are being eliminated at a far faster rate than al Qaeda can replace them," and noted the replacements "are much less experienced and credible."
He said eight of al Qaeda's 20 key leaders have been eliminated this year, citing the killing of Osama bin Laden in May, the death of al Qaeda second-in-command Atiya Abdul Rahman in August, and the capture of Younis Mauritani, a senior planner of operations, earlier this month.
Only al Qaeda's current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, remains active among those who were the top nine terrorists at the time of the 9/11 attacks against the United States in 2001.
But Vickers did note al Qaeda is resilient and remains a dangerous threat to the United States.
"It maintains a worldwide strength numbering in the low thousands, it has broadened its reach through affiliate organizations" in general, but in particular he mentioned al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which he said has been able to increase its operating space in Yemen.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been linked to the attempt to blow up an airliner over Detroit in December 2009 and a cargo plane plot last year.
Defense officials told Pentagon reporters on Wednesday that the United States sees "cross-pollenization between AQ affiliates." The two officials, who would only speak to reporters on the condition their identities not be used, cited a recent attack by Boko Haram, a militant group based in Nigeria.
The official said, "When you see a group like Boko Haram, which is focused internally, use a car bomb the way they did, it's a capability they clearly got from AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb)." But a senior defense official said of the idea of al Qaeda affiliates banding together, "You aren't going to see some Legion of Doom. It's an opportunity for an alliance of convenience."
Although Vickers predicted al Qaeda's core might be marginalized within 18 to 24 months, he said it might take longer to sufficiently disrupt the affiliates. "We likewise may not be done with the operational dismantlement of all of the group's regional affiliates within the next two years."
When asked to expand on Vickers' comments, Pentagon press secretary George Little said Wednesday, "I think what Mr. Vickers said tracks with what we've said repeatedly in recent months, and that is that al Qaeda in Pakistan has suffered a number of losses, their senior leadership has been thinned out to say the least, and it's important to keep the pressure up on the group." Little added, "We're not saying al Qaeda is down and out for good."
The two defense officials said they see al Qaeda's core's capability being degraded over the next 18 to 24 months, and they expect to continue to see regional affiliates assume a larger role. But a senior Defense official said, "There is an element of defeating a network that is separate from its ideological component. In other words, you can get them to be incapable, but it doesn't eliminate the idea of al Qaeda." The two officials said the degradation of the core al Qaeda will affect its affiliates going forward, in terms of their willingness and ability to plan attacks abroad. "In each splinter group or regional affiliate you have external and internal actors in leadership. The strength of the core to hold it all together is challenged."
Other members of the intelligence community were a bit skittish about putting a time frame on al Qaeda's core's demise. A U.S. counterterrorism official said the United States is "not putting a calendar on the wall," but Vickers' time frame is a "point to measure from." Another official said some intelligence agencies are "more cautious with their assessments" and less inclined to set time frames.
At a congressional hearing on Tuesday, new CIA Director David Petraeus said the "heavy losses to al Qaeda senior leadership appear to have created an important window of vulnerability for the core al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan," and the United States will need a "sustained focused effort" to exploit the opportunity.
Petraeus also called bin Laden's long-time deputy and successor, al-Zawahiri, a "less compelling" leader who will have more difficulty than bin Laden "in maintaining the group's cohesion and its collective motivation in the face of continued pressure."
A news report citing a Pakistani intelligence official as indicating al-Zawahiri has fled Pakistan and is in Yemen or Somalia was discounted by U.S. officials. Pentagon spokesman Little said he had "no information to indicate that Zawahiri is anywhere other than in Pakistan," a view shared by other intelligence officials contacted by CNN.
– CNN Pentagon Correspondent Chris Lawrence contributed to this report.