WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his second-in-command have been rendered ineffective by international anti-terrorist efforts, a senior U.S. counterterrorism official said on Tuesday.
The comments by Dell Dailey, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, were among the Bush administration’s most confident declarations of progress against bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al Zawahri.
Both men have nonetheless eluded a manhunt since the September 11 attacks on the United States by al Qaeda militants in 2001.
Dailey predicted Barack Obama, who takes over as U.S. president from George W. Bush on January 20, would seek broader and deeper international ties to fight terrorism.
Bin Laden and Zawahri, believed to be holed up in the remote Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, have been reduced to little more than a media operation, Dailey said in a breakfast meeting with reporters. But al Qaeda itself remains a threat owing to its regional affiliates and violent intentions.
“We see al Qaeda, in a centralized role, (as being) totally controlled,” Dailey said.
“Bin Laden can’t get an operational effort off the ground without it being detected ahead of time and being thwarted,” he said. “Their ability to reach is nonexistent.”
Dailey cited the 2006 disruption of a plot to bomb transatlantic passenger flights, which he said was detected in Pakistan and broken up in Britain, with continuous U.S. involvement.
U.S. intelligence agencies still consider al Qaeda as the top terrorist threat to the United States. But Dailey said this primarily reflected al Qaeda’s violent anti-Western aims and the strength of regional affiliates in places such as North Africa.
“Most terrorism is kind of regionally focused now,” he said.
The fight against terrorism will probably shift to groups of countries in North Africa or Asia, who would collaborate on controlling borders, restricting financial flows and monitoring terrorist groups, he said.
Dailey, who has had meetings with Obama transition officials, endorsed what he predicted would be a strategy of the incoming administration to emphasize working with groups of nations to fight terrorism, as opposed to unilateral actions and a bilateral focus with specific allies.
“I suspect it will be more countries, and more in depth with other countries,” he said.
Dailey said November’s attacks in Mumbai would probably influence militants to try more high-profile raids by gunmen and move away from vehicle-bomb attacks, which security agencies have learned to better defend against.
“The spectacularness of an on-foot attack will unfortunately ring true to other terrorist organizations,” Dailey said.
Editing by David Alexander and John O'Callaghan