Al Qaeda is retreating from Iraq in the face of constant allied military raids that have killed and captured hundreds of operatives, intelligence sources tell HUMAN EVENTS.
Al Qaeda once directed nearly 20,000 operatives — foreign and domestic — inside the country. Today, an official U.S. intelligence estimate puts the number at less than 5,000 and perhaps as low as 2,000, HUMAN EVENTS has learned.
"They have been dealt some very severe blows, particularly in the past year, and it’s fair to say they are in retreat," said a senior U.S. intelligence official who requested anonymity. "Al Qaeda in Iraq’s overall strength is down by well over half in the last year."
This officials said the word "retreat" does not mean al Qaeda has abandoned Iraq altogether but that its operatives are retreating to several northern Iraq locations or are leaving the country.
"Al Qaeda central is well aware of the setbacks, but they haven’t abandoned the effort or given up," said the official, noting the group’s ability to still carry out deadly suicide bombings. "They are still a force to be reckoned with."
That continued threat was underscored over the weekend when suicide bombers carried out several attacks in Baghdad.
Al Qaeda continues to operate networks in nearby Lebanon and Syria and works to find young Muslims to enter Iraq as fighters and suicide bombers.
In July, Gen. David Petraeus, then the top commander in Iraq, talked of al Qaeda redeploying some forces out of Iraq to fight elsewhere.
But intelligence sources now say the al Qaeda exodus has the look of a retreat as well as a tactical shift. The network cannot find sufficient foreign fighters to enter the country, and those that are there often get eliminated.
"It’s in large part a result of stepped up efforts by the military and a lot of headway in terms of rounding up these guys," said the senior intelligence official who asked not to be named. "Also there was the uprising of Iraqis who didn’t want these guys in their country, and then there was more and better intelligence."
The spear against al Qaeda in Iraq largely is in the hands of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). The nation’s secretive, premiere terrorist-hunting unit has teamed up with intelligence operatives and Army Rangers to pinpoint and eliminate scores of al Qaeda leader.
A military intelligence source said U.S. interception of emails and cell phones reveal al Qaeda operatives complaining that virtually every safe house they establish is located and raided by the Americans.
Al Qaeda’s decline began in 2006 in Anbar Province, a Sunni-stronghold then mostly controlled by the terror group. The U.S. convinced tribal leaders to join forces against al Qaeda. Within a year, the group was largely evicted.
Then came the February 2007 U.S. troop surge of 30,000 troops and a change in strategy that permanently positioned forces in neighborhoods that were cleared of the enemy.
"In some cases they’ve been put out of commission or they stopped fighting or they left," said the intelligence official.
If the intelligence assessment of a significant retreat is correct, it would mean a major blow against Osama bin Laden and his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Zawahiri once proclaimed Iraq as his terror group’s main objective.
A retreat would also be a bright light in President Bush’s anti-al Qaeda strategy, which is struggling to succeed in Afghanistan and Pakistan seven years after the September 11 attacks.