WASHINGTON — Skilled in tracking foreign terrorists, Jarret Brachman once was a sought-after expert on Al Qaeda, advising several federal agencies and speaking regularly around the country.
Now the former research director of the Combating Terrorism Center, a think tank at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, has turned his focus away from Islamic militants. He spends most of his time consulting with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies about threats from domestic extremists and antigovernment militias.
“I have totally re-branded my career,” Brachman said. “I still do the Al Qaeda stuff, but there’s no interest, no demand.... We’ve broken Al Qaeda’s back, strategically.”
Thanks to drone missile strikes and other counter-terrorism operations, the network founded by Osama bin Laden has been so eviscerated that U.S. intelligence agencies no longer fully understand the organizational structure below its nominal leader, Ayman Zawahiri, according to defense officials. The CIA has killed Zawahiri’s top lieutenants almost as quickly as they are identified.
Obama administration officials say the global network is in transition. They say it has decentralized from a top-down group based in Pakistan into smaller, far-flung and largely autonomous factions.
Affiliates in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Mali and Somalia remain dangerous, the officials say, so U.S. forces can’t relax their focus.
“The threat from Al Qaeda and the potential for a massive coordinated attack on the United States may be diminished, but the jihadist movement is more diffuse,” James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday. “Lone wolves, domestic extremists and jihad-inspired affiliated groups are still determined to attack Western interests.”
U.S. intelligence officials note that the most active Al Qaeda franchise still publicly aspires to attack the U.S. homeland. In 2009, the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula failed in an effort to bomb a passenger jet over Detroit, and in 2010, it sought to send bomb-laden packages to two Jewish institutions in Chicago.
Since then, however, a new Yemeni government and scores of U.S. drone strikes have gutted the group. Last year, Western intelligence agencies penetrated the Yemeni franchise with a double agent who helped thwart another plot to blow up an aircraft.
A growing group of analysts and former government officials say the threat from Al Qaeda affiliates is overblown. Most terrorist groups are focused on local concerns, not on America, and have little or no ability to organize a broader plot.
“To the best of our information, there is nobody out there with both the desire and the capabilities to cause any serious damage to the U.S. in any way at this moment,” said Rosa Brooks, a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense.
As Al Qaeda recedes as a direct threat, the CIA and special military forces appear to have throttled back on targeted killings. They have launched 16 drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen this year, according to the Long War Journal, which tracks reports of the attacks. That pace is much slower than in 2012, which saw 88 strikes over the course of the year.
The Obama administration also has begun bringing accused terrorists into civilian courts, rather than before military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay. In March, it brought three terrorism suspects into New York courtrooms after they were captured overseas.
“There’s clear recognition, from the White House on down, that as we wind down these wars we need to address the hard question of what does a sustainable counter-terrorism policy look like for the next phase,” said Shawn Brimley, who left the White House last year as director for strategic planning on the National Security Council.
The new CIA director, John Brennan, has indicated he is eager to move his agency away from targeted killings and back to its core responsibilities, spying and espionage. One option under discussion at the White House is to transfer much of the CIA’s drone fleet to the Pentagon.
But drones aside, Brimley warned that America’s immense counter-terrorism agencies and their supporters will resist ratcheting back, even at a time of shrinking budgets.
“You give a bureaucracy 10 years of unfettered growth and no real hard questions, and you’re going to have an entire industry looking at Al Qaeda nodes as an existential threat,” Brimley said.
There are also political hurdles. When a local Al Qaeda faction was linked to an attack that killed four Americans in September in Benghazi, Libya, it sparked turmoil in the U.S. presidential campaign and angry congressional hearings.
“It’s very hard to work this problem from a coldly analytic perspective because that’s not how the people who pay our bills, Congress and the public, think about it,” said Philip Mudd, a former top CIA and FBI official who is author of a new book, “Takedown: Inside the Hunt for Al Qaeda.”
Mudd contends that the intelligence machinery that “finds, fixes and finishes” terrorist leaders is needed for the foreseeable future, even if only in rare cases.
“Nobody can do what we do in terms of that kind of targeting work,” he said.