Al Qaeda's leadership: A steering wheel that's unattached to the car

But even as Al Qaeda’s leadership continues to project an image of control, many terrorism experts and American intelligence officials say that the members of this circle of maybe a dozen operatives — many of whom served for years as Osama bin Laden’s closest confidants — are at risk of being marginalized not only by the global jihad movement but by the Qaeda affiliates they helped spawn. With their ranks thinned by a relentless barrage of drone strikes, some experts believe, Al Qaeda’s operatives in Pakistan resemble a driver holding a steering wheel that is no longer attached to the car.

“With the death of guys like Atiyah, it’s increasingly likely that the Al Qaeda affiliate groups are just going to start doing their own thing,” said Brian Fishman, a terrorism analyst at the New America Foundation. “At some point, the guys in Pakistan might be reduced to issuing a lot of public statements and hoping for the best.”…

“For the past two years, the affiliates have been gaining in stature while core Al Qaeda has been declining,” said a senior American counterterrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because intelligence assessments of Al Qaeda are classified. “Bin Laden’s death accelerated this trend, and Atiyah’s death is the icing on the cake.”