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Intelligence Chief Sees Al Qaeda Likely to Continue Fragmenting

The assessment by the official, James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, added new detail to similar analyses by American counterterrorism officials in recent months. They were contained in prepared remarks to the Senate Intelligence Committee at the panel’s annual hearing to review global threats to the United States.

Mr. Clapper also addressed possible threats from Iran as tensions with that country over its nuclear program escalate. He said that the alleged Iranian plot last year to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States “shows that some Iranian officials — probably including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived US actions that threaten the regime.”

The statement did not provide any details on what types of attacks he thought were possible.

He also said the United States is concerned about Iranian plotting against American or allied interests overseas, adding that “Iran’s willingness to sponsor future attacks in the United States or against our interests abroad probably will be shaped by Tehran’s evaluation of the costs it bears for the plot against the Ambassador as well as Iranian leaders’ perceptions of US threats against the regime.”

Mr. Clapper also noted the rising volatility in the Middle East and North Africa following the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring; increasing threats of cyber attacks against government and private business computer systems; continued tensions with North Korea over its nuclear program; and rising drug-fueled violence in Mexico and Central America that threatens to spill over America’s borders.

The death of Osama bin Laden last May has severely weakened an Al Qaeda leadership that was already reeling from the death or capture of several other top leaders and losses have forced the terrorist organization to rely more heavily on affiliates in such places as North Africa, Iraq and Yemen.

Mr. Clapper said the global threat from Al Qaeda will undergo an important transition over the next two to three years to more regional actors assuming greater prominence. He also said there will be competing voices for the organization’s leadership arguing over whether to focus on local targets or the global mission to attack the West, and particularly the United States, an approach that bin Laden championed.

But intelligence officials say that continued pressure by the United States and its allies — including drone strikes, efforts to dry up terrorists’ financing and campaigns to counter extremist recruiting propaganda — will fragment this already decentralized movement.

“With fragmentation, core Al Qaeda will likely be of largely symbolic importance to the movement,” Mr. Clapper said. “Regional groups, and to a lesser extent small cells and individuals, will drive the global jihad agenda both within the United States and abroad.”

The counterterrorism strategies and tactics the West uses to fight terrorist groups will be critical to ensure long-term success, he said. “A key challenge for the West during this transition will be conducting aggressive CT operations while not exacerbating anti-Western global agendas and galvanizing new fronts in the movement,” he said.

Mr. Obama addressed this concern directly on Monday when he acknowledged publicly for the first time that the United States has carried out drone strikes against Qaeda leaders and other militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas. But he disputed reports that the strikes have caused large numbers of civilian casualties.

“Drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties,” Mr. Obama said Monday in response to questions posed by people during a live Web interview sponsored by Google Plus, the social media site of Google. “This is a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists who are trying to go in and harm Americans, hit American facilities, American bases, and so on.”

Of all the affiliates that have sprouted up over the past decade, the Qaeda arm in Yemen poses the greatest immediate threat to the United States, Mr. Clapper said. The group, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP, was behind the plot for a young Nigerian man to blow himself up on commercial jetliner over Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009. The group has also sought to acquire castor beans, from which ricin, a deadly toxin, is produced.

Mr. Clapper said that the death last September of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric who was a top propagandist and operational planner for the Yemen affiliate, “probably reduces, at least temporarily, AQAP’s ability to plan transnational attacks.”

View the original article in NYTimes.com