Osama bin Laden. Photograph: AP
The unit, named after the son of a counter-terror official, was disbanded last year, it emerged this week, and its agents reassigned in what intelligence officials described as a recognition of the changing nature of al-Qaida.
"The reorganisation just reflects the understanding that the Islamic jihadist movement continues to diversify," an intelligence official said.
Alec Station was founded in 1996, taking its name from the son of Michael Scheuer, the unit's former director. Its two dozen members worked in rented premises outside the CIA headquarters.
Since 9/11, the original al-Qaida has spawned dozens of regional affiliates from Indonesia to Iraq. Terrorism experts believe that Bin Laden and his Egyptian lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, no longer exercise centralised control over international jihad, although they continue to offer inspiration with audio tape messages and other more secret communications.
"Al-Qaida used to be a large hierarchical organisation, and five years out from 9/11 you have an organisation where many senior leaders, facilitators, and planners have been captured and killed, but you have a growing number of groups and individuals who have been inspired by al-Qaida and act independently of al-Qaida," the intelligence official said.
CIA officials insisted yesterday that the hunt for al-Qaida's founder continued. "Tracking and gathering intelligence about Bin Laden, Zawahiri … remains a high priority for the CIA and the intelligence community," one official said.