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Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

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August 5th, 2013
05:38 PM ET

Analysis: Is al Qaeda back?

In what may be a disturbing sign of al Qaeda’s resurgence, U.S. intelligence believes the Yemeni head of its affiliate in the Arabian peninsula is now the overall terror organization’s No. 2 leader.

A U.S. official with access to the latest intelligence said that Nasir al Wuhayshi was appointed over the past few weeks by al Qaeda chief Ayman Al Zawahiri.

"It's amazing that al Qaeda's nominal commander would outsource operations to someone, you know, thousands of miles away," said Spencer Ackerman, national security editor with The Guardian. "You can think about, even in light of our recent reporting about the NSA, the overwhelming surveillance opportunities that exists to intercept some of the plans that al Qaeda might be attempting."

President Barack Obama said during his re-election campaign that al Qaeda was on its heels.

"I think the president was misleading when he said that. If you listen closely, he always talked about al Qaeda core, those involved in 9/11 that had fled to Pakistan and Afghanistan," said Peter Brookes, former deputy assistant secretary of defense, and senior fellow for national security affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

"He often talked writ large about al Qaeda, which led people to believe he was talking about al Qaeda no matter where it was, in Africa, or in the Middle East, or anywhere else," said Brookes. 

Ackerman said Obama did not give appropriate context to Americans. But he added that the al Qaeda based in Afghanistan pre-9/11 was stronger than today's al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.

"What you also have to take into consideration ... is the differences in gradations, in capabilities between what al Qaeda was on 9/11 and shortly thereafter, and what al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is capable of," said Ackerman. "And it's capable currently of a whole lot less, orders of magnitude less of a threat than al Qaeda was on 9/11."

AQAP at its most ambitious attempted to take down an airliner during a Christmas Day plot, and planned a variety of different embassy attacks, said Ackerman.

"That's a whole lot less than using a complex, multi-airliner hijack operating as missiles, if you will, on multiple targets on one day," said Ackerman.

But overseas, Americans may be more vulnerable.

"Overseas, we have serious problems. Look at Benghazi, look what's going on in Iraq, look what's going on in Syria. There's a lot of threats and a lot of American interests overseas that we have to worry about. And al Qaeda is becoming more diffuse," said Brookes.

"We have to be careful not to become complacent. We're in a post-Osama bin Laden era, but we're not in a post-al Qaeda era," said Brookes.

"This points to a really interesting debate amongst the public: What safety do we expect? If we're not expecting ... zero attacks, if we're not expecting that, what is an acceptable level?" said Ackerman.

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