Less than a year after his agency warned of new threats from a resurgent al-Qaeda, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden now portrays the terrorist movement as essentially defeated in Iraq and Saudi Arabia and on the defensive throughout much of the rest of the world, including in its presumed haven along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
In a strikingly upbeat assessment, the CIA chief cited major gains against al-Qaeda's allies in the Middle East and an increasingly successful campaign to destabilize the group's core leadership.
While cautioning that al-Qaeda remains a serious threat, Hayden said Osama bin Laden is losing the battle for hearts and minds in the Islamic world and has largely forfeited his ability to exploit the Iraq war to recruit adherents. Two years ago, a CIA study concluded that the U.S.-led war had become a propaganda and marketing bonanza for al-Qaeda, generating cash donations and legions of volunteers.
All that has changed, Hayden said in an interview with The Washington Post this week that coincided with the start of his third year at the helm of the CIA.
"On balance, we are doing pretty well," he said, ticking down a list of accomplishments: "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," he said.
'Own worst enemy'
The sense of shifting tides in the terrorism fight is shared by a number of terrorism experts, though some caution that it is too early to tell whether the gains are permanent. Some credit Hayden and other U.S. intelligence leaders for going on the offensive against al-Qaeda in the area along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where the tempo of Predator strikes has dramatically increased from previous years. But analysts say the United States has caught some breaks in the past year, benefiting from improved conditions in Iraq, as well as strategic blunders by al-Qaeda that have cut into its support base.
"One of the lessons we can draw from the past two years is that al-Qaeda is its own worst enemy," said Robert Grenier, a former top CIA counterterrorism official who is now managing director of Kroll, a risk consulting firm. "Where they have succeeded initially, they very quickly discredit themselves."
Others warned that al-Qaeda remains capable of catastrophic attacks and may be even more determined to stage a major strike to prove its relevance. "Al-Qaeda's obituary has been written far too often in the past few years for anyone to declare victory," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. "I agree that there has been progress. But we're indisputably up against a very resilient and implacable enemy."
A landmark study last August by the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies described the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area as a de facto al-Qaeda haven in which terrorist leaders were reorganizing for attacks against the West. But Hayden said counterterrorism successes extend even to that lawless region. Although he would not discuss CIA operations in the area, U.S. intelligence agencies have carried out several attacks there since January, using unmanned Predator aircraft for surgical strikes against al-Qaeda and Taliban safe houses.
"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," Hayden said.
But terrorism experts note the lack of success in the U.S. effort to capture bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Intelligence officials say they think both are living in the Pakistan-Afghanistan tribal area in locations known only to a few top aides. Hayden said capturing or killing the pair remains a top priority, though he noted the difficulties in finding them in a rugged, remote region where the U.S. military is officially forbidden to operate.
The Bush administration has been watching political developments in Pakistan with apprehension, worried that the country's newly elected leadership will not be as tolerant of occasional unilateral U.S. strikes against al-Qaeda as was the government of President Pervez Musharraf, a close ally in the U.S. fight against terrorism.
Hayden declined to discuss what agreements, if any, have been brokered with Pakistan's new leaders, but he said, "We're comfortable with the authorities we have."
Since the start of the year, he said, al-Qaeda's global leadership has lost three senior officers, including two who succumbed "to violence," an apparent reference to Predator strikes that killed terrorist leaders Abu Laith al-Libi and Abu Sulayman al-Jazairi in Pakistan. He also cited a successful blow against "training activity" in the region but offered no details. "Those are the kinds of things that delay and disrupt al-Qaeda's planning," Hayden said.
Despite the optimistic outlook, he said he is concerned that the progress against al-Qaeda could be halted or reversed because of what he considers growing complacency and a return to the mind-set that existed before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"We remain worried, and frankly, I wonder why some other people aren't worried, too," he said. His concern stems in part from improved intelligence-gathering that has bolstered the CIA's understanding of al-Qaeda's intent, he said.
"The fact that we have kept [Americans] safe for pushing seven years now has got them back into the state of mind where 'safe' is normal," he said. "Our view is: Safe is hard-won, every 24 hours."
Hayden, who has previously highlighted a gulf between Washington and its European allies on how to battle terrorism, said he is troubled that Congress and many in the media are "focused less on the threat and more on the tactics the nation has chosen to deal with the threat" — a reference to controversial CIA interrogation techniques approved by Hayden's predecessors.
"The center line of the national discussion has moved, and in our business, our center line is more shaped by the reality of the threat," Hayden said.
On Iraq, he said he is encouraged not only by U.S. success against al-Qaeda's affiliates there, but also by what he described as the steadily rising competence of the Iraqi military and a growing popular antipathy toward jihadism.
"Despite this 'cause célebrè' phenomenon, fundamentally no one really liked al-Qaeda's vision of the future," Hayden said. As a result, the insurgency is viewed locally as "more and more a war of al-Qaeda against Iraqis," he said. Hayden specifically cited the recent writings of prominent Sunni clerics — including some who used to support al-Qaeda — criticizing the group for its indiscriminant killing of Muslim civilians.
While al-Qaeda misplayed its hand with gruesome attacks on Iraqi civilians, Hayden said, U.S. military commanders and intelligence officials deserve some of the credit for the shift, because they "created the circumstances" for it by building strategic alliances with Sunni and Shiite factions, he said.
Hayden warned, however, that progress in Iraq is being undermined by increasing interference by Iran, which he accused of supplying weapons, training and financial assistance to anti-U.S. insurgents. While declining to endorse any particular strategy for dealing with Iran, he described the threat in stark terms.
"It is the policy of the Iranian government, approved at the highest levels of that government, to facilitate the killing of American and other coalition forces in Iraq. Period," he said.