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Still out there and growing — al Qaeda on the rebound, experts say

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Two years after the end of the Iraq war, the U.S. State Department confirmed this week that it is providing the fragile country with sophisticated weapons and drones. Iraq needs help fighting against a growing and serious threat — al Qaeda.

For those who don’t avidly follow the complicated machinations of the globe’s top terror group, this could be confusing.

Hasn’t the line for years from the U.S. government and its allies been that al Qaeda is on the run, that its fiercest fighting ability has been weakened by U.S. strikes?

That truth is far more complex, of course. The terror group’s manpower has increased in recent years, it has gained control of more territory in North Africa and the Middle East and is taking a different approach to death, according to top lawmakers privy to high-level intelligence and experts who have observed al Qaeda’s activities since September 11.

A stake in Yemen

While al Qaeda suffered significant setbacks after Navy SEALs shot and killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011, and drone strikes have taken out top terrorists along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, the terror group and its close allies have rebounded in Yemen, the Sinai region of Egypt, Libya, Iraq, and parts of east and west Africa, among other places.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, headquartered in Yemen, is particularly concerning.

CNN has learned of recent intercepts of messages among senior al Qaeda operatives in Yemen, but the messages don’t name specific targets. One source told CNN that the chatter suggested “active plotting.”

“There are multiple indications that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is plotting attacks both within Yemen, against U.S. and Western structures and overseas,” said Seth Jones, an analyst at Rand Corp. The Yemeni group is already notorious for sending an operative on board a flight into the United States on Christmas day in 2009 with explosives in his underwear.

Al Qaeda in Yemen “are still capable of conducting attacks” and particularly adept at “taking down aircraft,” Jones said.

Al Qaeda: We’re sorry about Yemen hospital attack

The U.S. has been fighting back, but not every strike has been successful. This month a drone failed to kill an al Qaeda planner believed to be behind a plot to attack the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa. Instead, the drone hit a wedding party, Yemeni officials said.

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