From left, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and CIA Director David Petraeus appear before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Capitol Hill on Tuesday in Washington, D.C. Clapper said the death of Osama bin Laden delivered a critical wound to al-Qaida. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)
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The al-Qaida terrorist network has not and maybe never will recover from the death of Osama bin Laden, the top U.S. intelligence official said Tuesday.
Testifying in a rare open session to discuss global threats, James Clapper, the retired Air Force lieutenant general who is director of national intelligence, said bin Laden's successor as head of the terrorist network has a "leadership style less compelling than bin Laden's image as a holy man and warrior."
The new al-Qaida leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, will not receive the same "deference" as bin Laden, Clapper said, adding that the loss of other leaders through death or capture is "so substantial, and [the group's] operating environment so restricted, that a new group of leaders, even if they could be found, would have difficulty integrating into the organization and compensating for mounting losses."
Still, al-Qaida isn't finished, Clapper said. Even with degraded capabilities, the terrorist network "will seek to execute smaller, simpler plots to demonstrate relevance to the global jihad" while aspiring to attack larger targets, including the U.S. homeland, he said.
Al-Qaida operatives in Pakistan increasingly rely on militant factions there to conduct attacks, Clapper said. Pakistan's military has had only "limited success" against this threat.
Regional affiliates of al-Qaida, such as the Northern Africa affiliate Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghred or AQIM, receive communications from network leaders but have limited ability to conduct out-of-area attacks.
"We will never again have a hearing where someone asks where is Osama bin Laden," noted Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the intelligence panel's ranking Republican.