CIA chief Michael Hayden said that successes included "significant setbacks for al Qaeda globally", but analysts called it "a pretty large dish of wishful thinking", saying that the group had found more safe havens in Pakistan, not fewer.
Al Qaeda is near defeat in Iraq and Saudi Arabia and is on the defensive even in its safe havens along the Afghan-Pakistani border, CIA chief Michael Hayden said in an interview published Friday.
The assessment was one of the most upbeat by a top intelligence official since the September 11, 2001 attacks and a sharp change in tone less than a year after US intelligence agencies warned that a revitalized al Qaeda was plotting attacks against the west.
"On balance, we are doing pretty well," Hayden told the Washington Post, while warning that al Qaeda remains a serious threat.
The list of accomplishments, he said, includes: "Near strategic defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq. Near strategic defeat for al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. Significant setbacks for al Qaeda globally -- and here I'm going to use the word 'ideologically' -- as a lot of the Islamic world pushes back on their form of Islam."
Analysts, however, said al Qaeda's safe havens in Pakistan have grown larger, not smaller, in the past year, giving the group the space it needs to operate, even in the face of stepped up attacks by unmanned US aircraft.
"I think that the administration very much wants to paint a picture of success, particularly as it gets close to the end of eight years," said Bruce Riedel, a longtime former CIA analyst now with Brookings Institution.
"So I'm not surprised we're seeing an effort to portray it in the most optimistic, possible way," he said, calling it "a pretty large dish of wishful thinking".
Al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri remain at large, and the US intelligence communities in a July 2007 estimate said al Qaeda had regenerated a new cadre of leadership in Pakistan.
Tom Sanderson, a terrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Hayden appeared to be drawing on undisclosed evidence that shows al Qaeda's leadership is reeling.
"Nonetheless, it does take people by surprise, even people who are monitoring this, that there is such a stark difference between the assessment last year, with significant though not overwhelming tactical successes in the interim," he said.
Hayden said al Qaeda has lost three senior officers this year, including two who succumbed "to violence". The Post said that was an apparent references to strikes by unmanned Predator aircraft that killed Abu Laith al-Libi and Abu Sulayman al-Jazairi.
"The ability to kill and capture key members of al Qaeda continues, and keeps them off balance -- even in their best safe haven along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border," he said.
Hayden said bin Laden is also losing the battle for hearts and minds in the Islamic world and has largely lost his ability to exploit the Iraq war to recruit new members.
In Iraq, Hayden said he was encouraged by US success against al Qaeda's affiliates and by what he described as the steadily rising competence of the Iraqi military and a growing popular antipathy toward jihadism.
Riedel said that while it is true that al Qaeda has suffered serious setbacks in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, there was a danger in "glossing over some of al Qaeda's remarkable strengths."
"The safe haven that they have developed in Pakistan over the last two or three years is getting bigger, not smaller, and that safe haven is the most important thing for al Qaeda," he said.
It was from Pakistan that al Qaeda launched attacks in western Europe, including the 2005 attacks on the London underground and a 2006 attempt to bring down 10 jumbo jets over the Atlantic.
A posting on jihadist website al-Hesbah threatened an attack bigger than September 11 before President George W. Bush leaves office, according to the SITE intel group.
Riedel said the US elections were a prime time for a move by al Qaeda -- "whether that's a statement by Osama bin Laden, as he did the last time, or something much more deadly".
Date created : 2008-05-31