WASHINGTON - Al-Qaeda leaders are adopting a more defensive tone in their public pronouncements, senior United States intelligence official Ted Gistaro has said as he gave an assessment of the progress the U.S. has made in its fight against the militant network since the Sept. 11, 2001. "This defensive tone continues a trend observed since at least last summer and reflects concern over allegations by militant leaders and religious scholars that al-Qaeda and its affiliates have violated the Islamic laws of war, particularly in Iraq and North Africa," he said at a function on Tuesday. During 2008, senior al-Qaeda leaders "have devoted nearly half their airtime to defending the group's legitimacy," he added. Gistaro, the national intelligence officer for transnational threats -- the top U.S. intelligence analyst on terror groups -- spoke at a briefing organized by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He said the group had "maintained or strengthened key elements of its capability to attack the United States in the past year," mainly because of the continuing safe haven it enjoys in the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan, where it "now has many of the operational and organizational advantages it once enjoyed across the border in (Taliban-controlled) Afghanistan, albeit on a smaller and less secure scale." But despite its continuing operational capabilities, the group has been hurt on the ideological front, he said. Al-Qaeda "has suffered several setbacks among its key constituents," including the fact that its "brutal attacks against Muslim civilians are tarnishing its image among both mainstream and extremist" co-religionists. Gistaro highlighted criticism of al-Qaeda from former allies like Egyptian extremist leader Sayyid Imam Abd al-Aziz al-Sharif, better known as Dr. Fadl, and other Islamic hard-liners like Saudi cleric Sheik Salman al-Oadah. He also said al Qaeda's success in forging close ties to Pakistani militant groups has given it an increasingly secure haven in the mountainous tribal areas of Pakistan. Al Qaeda is more capable of attacking inside the United States than it was last year, and its cadre of senior leaders has recruited and trained "dozens" of militants capable of blending into Western society to carry out attacks, he added.