Speaking to the Guardian in advance of tomorrow's eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, western counter-terrorism officials and specialists in the Muslim world said the organisation faced a crisis that was severely affecting its ability to find, inspire and train willing fighters.When you consider that the terrorist group is being relentlessly hunted down in former safe havens like Pakistan and Afghanistan, it's affiliates in Iraq were decimated, and even Hamas considers al Qaeda a mortal threat to its own terror operations, you can see why al Qaeda has problems.
Its activity is increasingly dispersed to "affiliates" or "franchises" in Yemen and North Africa, but the links of local or regional jihadi groups to the centre are tenuous; they enjoy little popular support and successes have been limited.
Lethal strikes by CIA drones – including two this week alone – have combined with the monitoring and disruption of electronic communications, suspicion and low morale to take their toll on al-Qaida's Pakistani "core", in the jargon of western intelligence agencies.
Interrogation documents seen by the Guardian show that European Muslim volunteers faced a chaotic reception, a low level of training, poor conditions and eventual disillusionment after arriving in Waziristan last year.
"Core" al-Qaida is now reduced to a senior leadership of six to eight men, including Bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, according to most informed estimates. Several other Egyptians, a Libyan and a Mauritanian occupy the other top positions. In all, there are perhaps 200 operatives who count.
The most significant recent development is evidence that al-Qaida's alliance with the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan is fraying, boosting the prospect of acquiring intelligence that will lead to Bin Laden's capture or death. Despite an intensive US-led manhunt, there has not been a credible lead on the Saudi-born al-Qaida leader in years. Bin Laden's nickname among some CIA hunters is "Elvis" because there have been so many false sightings of him.
However, that's not quite the full story. Al Qaeda may be losing its power as a distinct entity, but its worldview and the pursuit of jihad is not going away. It's still a very powerful force in places like Pakistan, Iran, Somalia, and other failed states and regions around the world. Instead of groups directly linked to al Qaeda, there are more freelance groups and cells operating to plot attacks. Groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat al-Muslimeen fill the void.
Even in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Taliban under the Mehsud clan took up al Qaeda's banner and were effectively holding off Pakistan's military in the frontier provinces. Recent airstrikes killed Baitullah Mehsud, but a relative picked up where he left off.
The problem is that when you drop the number of members in a core group below a certain point, the ability to track, let alone penetrate, the terror group to gain intel about whereabouts, plans, and coordination with operational terror cells becomes increasingly more difficult. With the core leadership down to 6-8 terrorists, finding those terrorists in the vast space of the frontier provinces of Pakistan and Afghanistan is exceedingly difficult.
It requires continued vigilance to prevent another mass casualty attack, and to consider attacks in venues that might not be suspected.