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Al Qaeda still a threat to U.S., intelligence chiefs say

The group's reputation has fallen in the Muslim world. But Western recruits who can more easily enter the US are being trained in Pakistan camps, intelligence officials say.

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Over the years, the group has lost its Afghanistan training camps, and much of its senior leadership, including key operational planners. But Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants have been able to retreat to the sanctuary of Pakistan's wild border areas, while drawing on a bench of skilled operatives to replace members that have been killed or captured.

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"It's an immensely adaptive organization," says William C. Martel, an associate professor of international security studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

Recruitment of disaffected Americans would fit right in with Al Qaeda's style, says Mr. Martel. But such a move could also backfire on the group's central leadership, he says.

Until now, the Central Intelligence Agency has found the terror group difficult to infiltrate, due to its cellular structure and its reliance on natives from Islamic lands. If Al Qaeda is opening its doors to Westerners, however, it could potentially be more open to penetration by western spies.

"It could make it easier for us to understand what they're doing, and why," says Martel.

As to its affiliate group, Al Qaeda in Iraq, this has been a year of major setbacks, with hundreds of its members killed and facilities destroyed.

The brutality of the group's methods has even earned it rebukes from Al Qaeda's top leaders, hiding out in Pakistan. US officials claim that Sunni Muslims throughout the world have been repulsed by the group's attacks on Iraqi Sunni tribes that had switched to aiding the US effort.

"Are we reaching a tipping point, where we'll see a decline in this radical [Islamist] behavior? " asked McConnell at the hearing. "We don't know yet. We're watching it very closely."

The group's ability to reconstitute and retain a base of operations in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) has been a major setback to counterterror efforts, admit intelligence officials. The FATA has given the group many of the advantages it once took from its bases in Afghanistan. The region has served as a staging area for Al Qaeda attacks in Afghanistan, as well as a base for training operations.

Pakistan remains in political turmoil following the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Its security forces are thought to number many Al Qaeda and Taliban supporters.

Still, Pakistani intelligence officials have shown increasing determination to strengthen their counterterror performance, McConnell said. They have realized the stakes of the struggle, he said, since the number of Pakistani civilians and soldiers killed in 2007 by terrorist attacks equaled the total of those killed in the six previous years.

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