The September 2011 U.S. drone killing of American-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki has not had a big impact operationally on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based group in which al-Awlaki served as a spokesman, according to former CIA chief John McLaughlin.
McLaughlin, speaking during a Washington panel discussion, said AQAP now controls, or exercises influence in, about half of Yemen.
"I don't think it (al-Awlaki's death) had a big impact on them operationally," he said. "It's had an impact in the sense that he was their principal spokesman to an English audience. Their leadership is still there."
The group continues to have several worrisome characteristics, McLaughlin said.
"One, they move fast," he said. It took the group only two or three months to mobilize Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called Underwear Bomber, charged in the Christmas Day 2009 bombing attack on a Northwest Airlines jet. McLaughlin called the plot a "pick-up game" that took the organization only two or three months to plan.
AQAP also knows how to spread terror economically, McLaughlin said. "They're cheap. Their (Oct. 2010 toner cartridge) package bomb operation, by their own estimate, cost them about $4,200," he said.
And they have a strategy. They "basically attack us where they can," he said.
Further, AQAP is connected to both Al Qaeda central and to Al Shabab, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, he said.
"I don't think we're out of the woods at all yet with terror," McLaughlin said, concerning Al Qaeda's core group, which launched the September 11, 2001, attacks. "It's become a little too fashionable, I think, to say that Al Qaeda is strategically defeated."
"Al Qaeda of today is still alive. It is less hierarchical. It is less structured... there are ways in which it has been weakened," McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin, who served as acting director of the CIA in 2004, made his comments during a panel discussion sponsored by Aspen Institute's Homeland Security Group.