Washington, D.C.–Speaking at the Atlantic Council today, General Michael V. Hayden, Director of the CIA, said that “Al Qaeda has suffered serious setbacks, but it remains a determined, adaptive enemy.” He termed al Qaeda a “resilient and vulnerable” foe and said it represents the most clear and present danger to the United States. Terrorism, he noted, gets more Intelligence Community attention than any other issue. He added that he senses “complacency” about terrorism among the American people.

In Iraq al Qaeda is “on the verge of strategic defeat”, he commented, but he voiced concern about “bleedout” of fighters from Iraq to other battlefields. He found recent attacks in the Maghreb “troubling” and saw a rising threat in Yemen that also threatens Saudi Arabia, which has suppressed its domestic al Qaeda and disrupted its financing effort.

The general said that every major threat around the world has connections back to Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), the isolation of which represents a key vulnerability of al Qaeda. He saw US attacks on al Qaeda in the FATA as keeping it off balance. Before 2001 we were in “perpetual defense”, he said. Now we are on the offensive, “the single most important way to defend the Homeland.”

The hunt for Osama Bin Laden remains a top priority for CIA, Hayden stated. Bin Laden has been obliged to devote considerable resources to his personal safety, and many mid-level and some senior al Qaeda personnel have been killed. However, al Qaeda made a successful alliance with Pashtun extremists in 2007, and this alliance shared responsibility for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and threatens the Government of Pakistan itself. Al Qaeda has trained fighters in the FATA and is especially focussed on recruiting people who fit smoothly into the West. The Arabs in al Qaeda have shown respect for Pashtun customs, and so they have been treated better by the Pashtuns than fighters from Uzbekistan and elsewhere, leading even to intermarriage.

In what he called the “deep fight”, the battle for minds and hearts in the Muslim world, Hayden was encouraged by the greater willingness of Muslims to speak out against al Qaeda.

While al Qaeda continues to pursue weapons of mass destruction, current concerns focus more on minor weapons than major ones. On whether al Qaeda would use WMD, Hayden said “If al Qaeda could do it, they would.”

Hayden restricted his comments to the War on Terrorism. “We are in a state of war,” he emphasized. That war is against an “unprecedented” enemy and “requires a response that has no model in our past.” He steered clear of various questions and issues, pleading his inability to discuss confidential matters. 

Kenneth J. Dillon


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