"On balance, we are doing pretty well," he said, ticking down a list of accomplishments: "Near strategic defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Near strategic defeat for al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. Significant setbacks for al-Qaeda globally -- and here I'm going to use the word 'ideologically' -- as a lot of the Islamic world pushes back on their form of Islam," he said.
The sense of shifting tides in the terrorism fight is shared by a number of terrorism experts, though some caution that it is too early to tell whether the gains are permanent. Some credit Hayden and other U.S. intelligence leaders for going on the offensive against al-Qaeda in the area along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where the tempo of Predator strikes has dramatically increased from previous years. But analysts say the United States has caught some breaks in the past year, benefiting from improved conditions in Iraq, as well as strategic blunders by al-Qaeda that have cut into its support base.
"One of the lessons we can draw from the past two years is that al-Qaeda is its own worst enemy," said Robert Grenier, a former top CIA counterterrorism official who is now managing director of Kroll, a risk consulting firm. "Where they have succeeded initially, they very quickly discredit themselves."
Others warned that al-Qaeda remains capable of catastrophic attacks and may be even more determined to stage a major strike to prove its relevance. "Al-Qaeda's obituary has been written far too often in the past few years for anyone to declare victory," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. "I agree that there has been progress. But we're indisputably up against a very resilient and implacable enemy."
A landmark study last August by the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies described the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area as a de facto al-Qaeda haven in which terrorist leaders were reorganizing for attacks against the West. But Hayden said counterterrorism successes extend even to that lawless region. Although he would not discuss CIA operations in the area, U.S. intelligence agencies have carried out several attacks there since January, using unmanned Predator aircraft for surgical strikes against al-Qaeda and Taliban safe houses.