Thursday, July 01, 2010
New Estimate of Strength of Al Qaeda Is Offered
By DAVID E. SANGER and MARK MAZZETTI ASPEN, Colo. — Michael E. Leiter, one of the country’s top counterterrorism officials, said Wednesday that American intelligence officials now estimated that there were somewhat “more than 300” Qaeda leaders and fighters hiding in Pakistan’s tribal areas, a rare public assessment of the strength of the terrorist group that is the central target of President Obama’s war strategy. Taken together with the recent estimate by the C.I.A. director, Leon E. Panetta, that there are about 50 to 100 Qaeda operatives now in Afghanistan, American intelligence agencies believe that there are most likely fewer than 500 members of the group in a region where the United States has poured nearly 100,000 troops. Many American officials warn about such comparisons, saying that Al Qaeda has forged close ties with a number of affiliated militant groups and that a large American troop presence is necessary to helping the Afghan government prevent Al Qaeda from gaining a safe haven in Afghanistan similar to what it had before the Sept. 11 attacks. On Monday, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that on a recent trip to the region he was struck by the “depth of synergies” between Al Qaeda and a number of other insurgent groups, including the Pakistani and the Afghan Taliban. Mr. Leiter, who is the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, concurred with Admiral Mullen’s judgment. But with the fighting in Afghanistan intensifying and few indications that the Taliban are weakening, the recent estimates of Al Qaeda’s strength could give ammunition to critics of President Obama’s strategy who think the United States should pull most of its troops from the country and instead rely on small teams of Special Operations forces and missile strikes from C.I.A. drones. Both Mr. Leiter and Admiral Mullen were speaking at the same homeland security conference at the Aspen Institute, sponsored in part by The New York Times. Mr. Panetta’s public remarks came last Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” Mr. Leiter told the audience on Wednesday that “we’ve had some incredible successes” against Al Qaeda’s leadership. Echoing Mr. Panetta’s assessment, he said the group “is weaker today than it has been at any time since 2001.” But he quickly added, “Weaker does not mean harmless.” Administration officials talk increasingly about the dangers posed by militant groups affiliated with Al Qaeda, saying they have both the intent and the capabilities to attack the United States. The man accused of trying to detonate a vehicle in Times Square in May received training from the Pakistani Taliban, a group once thought to be interested only in attacking inside Pakistan. On Dec. 25, a young Nigerian man tried to blow up a transatlantic jetliner on its way to Detroit after being trained by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a Yemen-based terror group, officials say. Mr. Leiter’s organization was one of those criticized for failing to thwart the Dec. 25 attack by placing the man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, on a no-fly list. Mr. Leiter said that “the threshold has been lowered” for placing individuals with suspected links to terror groups on that list, though he would not describe the new criteria. He said that Mr. Abdulmutallab was on a list of suspects “available to 10,000 people” inside the United States government, including the Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department and others.