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Experts Tell Senate Panel al-Qaida Remains a Threat, But Is 'Severely Damaged'


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Amid a national debate on how the U.S. should move forward in Afghanistan, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on the threat of the al-Qaida terrorist network in Afghanistan and beyond.

Al-Qaida expert Peter Bergen gave the Senate panel his candid assessment of the threat of an al-Qaida attack on American soil on the scale of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

"First of all the threat to the United States of a 9/11 attack is close to zero now," said Peter Bergen. "Al-Qaida itself, if it got lucky, might be able to pull off something like the first [World] Trade Center attack."

Bergen is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation research institute. He said al-Qaida is still capable of killing hundreds of Americans overseas, but that support for the terrorist network is waning in many places because al-Qaida has killed so many Muslim civilians. He said American Muslims have overwhelmingly rejected al-Qaida's violent extremism in favor of the American dream, and that American Muslims' education and income levels are higher than those of average Americans.

Terrorism expert Marc Sageman says counter-terrorism efforts have also helped to prevent or foil al-Qaida attacks over the past eight years.

"Counter-terrorism is working," said Marc Sageman. "There has been no casualty in the United States for the past eight years, and no casualty in the West in the past four years."

Sageman praised good domestic law enforcement and domestic intelligence at home in the United States, and international efforts to share intelligence and to prevent potential terrorists from traveling to Pakistan for training.

Republican Senator Richard Lugar said money is a key ingredient for al-Qaida in recruiting terrorists and staging large-scale attacks, and that the U.S. needs to keep up the pressure on financing for the network.

"The United States and its allies should be more forceful and vocal about sources of finance for extremist groups," said Senator Lugar. "The information might prove disquieting to some friends, but governments must be held accountable for tacitly enabling those who fuel violent extremism."

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, Democrat John Kerry, also welcomed the progress that has been made in fighting al-Qaida, but he cautioned that the United States must remain vigilant.

"We cannot confuse the absence of an attack on our soil for the absence of a threat," said Senator Kerry.

Wednesday's hearing came on the eighth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, as President Barack Obama is conducting a major review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.

The panel experts agreed that al-Qaida now barely has a presence in Afghanistan and has its core in Pakistan. But the experts disagreed as to whether al-Qaida militants would simply cross the border and re-establish their presence in Afghanistan if U.S. troops were to withdraw from Afghanistan.

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