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How al-Qaida has changed since bin Laden’s death

Five years ago, U.S. special operations forces launched a daring mission to kill al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden. Special correspondent Nick Schifrin, who visited the scene shortly after the battle, describes what he observed, then former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director Leon Panetta joins Hari Sreenivasan to reflect on how international terrorism has changed over the past five years.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Five years ago,U.S. special operations forces launched one of the most daring raids in history. They invaded a U.S. ally to kill the most wanted man on the planet.

    I recorded this conversation last week with NewsHour special correspondent Nick Schifrin, who visited the scene shortly after the battle.

    Nick Schifrin was the first Western reporter to arrive in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that day, and delivered exclusive, extraordinary video, images from inside the compound just hours after bin Laden was killed.

    At the time, Nick was ABC News correspondent in the region. And now he's a NewsHour special correspondent.

    And he joins me in the studio.

    So, what did we see in that video?

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Hari, we saw how the world's most wanted man lived and how he died.

    In terms of how he lived, we see a bedroom, a large bed, bigger than any bed anywhere else in the house. We saw the medications he was on, very simple medications available at the local pharmacy. We saw a pantry where there was a week's worth of food stored up. We saw so many signs of children.

    There was a red wagon outside in the backyard. There were 12 kids living there. Half of them were bin Laden's. We also saw a satellite dish outside. That was a one-way communication device used to watch TV on that dish, of course, never used it to communicate with the outside world.

    And, of course, we saw how he died, the pools of blood in his bedroom and the room of Khaled, his son, and the mess that Navy SEALs left behind. They ransacked the room where all the computers were. And all the files from those computers became what intelligence officials referred to as the Abbottabad files.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Here we are five years later. The news is almost — almost on a daily basis mentions ISIS. It doesn't mention al-Qaida so much. Is there — explain the shift.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Yes.

    I think, as one longtime al-Qaida puts it, al-Qaida has kind of like become Microsoft. It's still got a decent share of the market, but it's not preeminent. It's not really seen as cutting edge. And it doesn't really appeal to the younger generation.

    And that is because, of course what we call core al-Qaida, the al-Qaida leadership as it was defined in 9/11 and the years after, has been decimated. And that started before bin Laden was killed, about two or three years before, probably 2009. The CIA moved a lot of assets and intelligence and technology into the region, and drones started picking off these leaders.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    What about the al-Qaida affiliates that have spread in other parts of the world and still seem pretty active? I mean, are these essentially franchise operations?

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    That's exactly what it is.

    And there was a reason that they were created even before bin Laden was killed, because core al-Qaida was on the run. So you had to have these affiliates. And they still have some success. And that's really still the threat of al-Qaida today, the most prominent one, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen.

    That's the group that has come closest to attacking the West. You had the underwear bomber, if you remember, that print cartridge bomb that didn't go off. And, also, one of the members of the team that attacked Charlie Hebdo in Paris probably got training from al-Qaida.

    But what they have succeeded at recently is one of bin Laden's other core tenants, not only attacking the West, but really ingratiating the local population, again, something ISIS doesn't do.

    And what AQAP has done in Yemen recently is worked with local tribal chiefs. And that has allowed them to actually gain ground in Yemen. So, right now, they are actually doing quite well in Yemen.

    There's three more affiliates. The most prominent one, other than AQAP, is al-Nusra in Syria, again, also working with the local population, working with other groups that fight Assad, no longer only focused on the West.

    AQIM in Northwest Africa has had some headline-grabbing attacks recently, although not quite clear how organized they are as a group anymore. And, lastly, Al-Shabaab, totally locally focused on the Somali government and Kenyans who have come into Somalia.

    So, to use a sports metaphor, al-Qaida still fields a team. They're still on the field, but not a lot of long passes anymore, not a lot of touchdowns, trying to gain two, three yards at a time. And the coach, Zawahri, isn't particularly well-liked by the players, can't communicate that well. The bench is very weak, but still a threat.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Nick Schifrin, thanks so much.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Thanks a lot, Hari.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The raid on bin Laden's compound was watched closely by President Obama and his national security advisers, among them, Leon Panetta, who was CIA director at the time. He watched the raid unfold in real time from the agency's Langley headquarters.

    And he joins me now.

    So, Secretary, what was that day like for you? It was a culmination of a lot of work that went into it for years.

    LEON PANETTA, Former Secretary of Defense: It was.

    It was an awful lot of work that stretched back 10 years, almost to 9/11. And an awful lot of people deserve tremendous credit for that, the CIA, the intelligence agencies, those involved with the special forces operation.

    There were just an awful lot of people who did various pieces of the intelligence effort and the military effort that resulted in the raid itself. But it was — it was something that — as an individual responsible for kind of overseeing the operation from the CIA, it was a remarkable operation.

    And a lot of tribute goes to the bravery and courage of those who conducted it.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Where is al-Qaida now, meaning, is the infrastructure, the network that Osama bin Laden exploited, does that still exist?

  • LEON PANETTA:

    We have done a very good job at decimating al-Qaida's leadership, particularly in Pakistan.

    And I think, obviously, the bin Laden operation was kind of the primary effort to go after the spiritual leader of al-Qaida. And so I think, generally, a good job at decimating their leadership.

    At the same time, al-Qaida's probably metastasized, as we have seen with other terrorist operations in the Middle East. There are variations of al-Qaida that are still operating very much in the Middle East and North Africa.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Have we succeeded then as a policy to degrade their network to almost zero, or, as you mentioned, they have sort of sprung out into different branch operations in other parts of the world?

  • LEON PANETTA:

    The reality is that terrorism remains a threat.

    It's metastasized into ISIS. It's metastasized into Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab. And so it continues to be very much a threat that the United States and other countries in the world have to focus on. This is a long-term effort.

    We have had some success, there is no question about it. We have gone after their leadership. We have done well to prevent another 9/11-type attack, but there remains an awful lot more work to be done in order to protect this country.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Five years on, have we fully understood the complicity of Pakistan in all this?

  • LEON PANETTA:

    It's — it's been a challenging period to develop the relationship with Pakistan.

    Obviously, Pakistan was helpful in being able to work with us in many areas. Certainly, in the intelligence area, we worked together. On military efforts, we worked together. But, at the same time, Pakistan was difficult because they had a close relationship to various terrorist networks, and you were never quite sure just exactly where their loyalties would lie.

    And it was for that reason, very frankly, that when we were looking at the bin Laden operation, which we would have preferred, frankly, to have worked with Pakistan. But there are so many questions raised about whether or not we could trust them that the president decided that we should do it alone.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    When you look at the landscape from your vantage point, it seems like the terrorists learned more from us about how we hunted down bin Laden, how we went after organizations, their leadership infrastructure.

    And now we're in an era where terror groups operate almost singularly, in cells. And it's hard to find a single person that runs anything that we can go after.

  • LEON PANETTA:

    Well, you're right, in the sense that, just as we have learned how to confront terrorist groups and try to track them and go after their planning for possible attacks in this country, they have learned as well.

    They have learned, you know, a lot of our technology, our process, how we operate. And the result is that they operate much more in a lone wolf fashion, in the sense that, you know, they do outreach, they have individuals that are well-placed, but they minimize the contacts. They minimize the planning. And that makes them even a greater threat.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Secretary Leon Panetta, thanks so much for joining us.

  • LEON PANETTA:

    Thank you very much.

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