Is al Qaeda collapsing?

Counterterrorism officials say the original al Qaeda core behind the 9/11 attacks is nearly kaput. Does that mean the terrorism threat is fading?

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (right), with Army General David Petraeus during a visit to Afghanistan
(Image credit: REUTERS/Paul Richards/Pool)

The leaders of the U.S. war against al Qaeda say that the killing of Osama bin Laden and years of relentless CIA drone strikes have all but destroyed the terrorist network, according to The Washington Post. Counterterrorism officials stress that radical Islamists still pose a threat, but Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says "we're within reach of strategically defeating" the Pakistan-based group that carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Is this optimism warranted?

We've nearly won this battle: Bin Laden's "original core al-Qaeda group is on the ropes," says Kevin Drum at Mother Jones. Washington getting so tough on Pakistan it appears we "don't care very much anymore if they kick us out of the country," which is "a pretty strong sign that we really do increasingly believe that al Qaeda Central is nearly done for." Now it's time to move on to al Qaeda clones in Yemen and Somalia.

"Al Qaeda is dead, long live al Qaeda"

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This changes nothing: The best interpretation here, says Mark Benjamin at TIME, is that, as one counterterrorism official put it, "the part of al-Qaeda that is based in Pakistan [is] 'largely incapable of catastrophic attacks against the homeland.'" The trouble is, not "a single thing... will change as a result of this alleged defeat." The threat from al Qaeda worldwide is still very much alive, it's just "continuing to morph as it has been for a decade."

"Good news, the war is over"

There is reason to be skeptical: President Obama wouldn't let us see photos of Osama bin Laden's corpse, says Andrew Malcolm at the Los Angeles Times, for fear of provoking another attack, "despite enhanced TSA groping." Yet now, just three months later, anonymous administration sources are "pronouncing the 9/11 al Qaeda ogre effectively neutralized." A skeptic might think this is more about bolstering Obama's national security credentials for his reelection campaign than any real change on the battlefield.

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