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CIA director says secret attacks in Pakistan have hobbled al-Qaeda

By Joby Warrick and Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 18, 2010; A01

Aggressive attacks against al-Qaeda in Pakistan's tribal region have driven Osama bin Laden and his top deputies deeper into hiding and disrupted their ability to plan sophisticated operations, CIA Director Leon Panetta said Wednesday.

So profound is al-Qaeda's disarray that one of its lieutenants, in a recently intercepted message, pleaded with bin Laden to come to the group's rescue and provide some leadership, Panetta said. He credited improved coordination with Pakistan's government and what he called "the most aggressive operation that CIA has been involved in in our history," offering a near-acknowledgment of what is officially a secret war.

"Those operations are seriously disrupting al-Qaeda," Panetta said. "It's pretty clear from all the intelligence we are getting that they are having a very difficult time putting together any kind of command and control, that they are scrambling. And that we really do have them on the run."

Panetta is one of several senior officials who have stepped forward to argue that the administration is making gains against extremists, in part to rebut Republican criticism that President Obama has weakened national security. He is not the first CIA director to point to progress in the war against al-Qaeda, claims that sometimes prove too ambitious. "I have an excellent idea of where [bin Laden] is," then-CIA Director Porter J. Goss told an interviewer in 2005.

Senior Obama administration officials this week have given sharply different views on how bin Laden would be dealt with if he fell into U.S. hands. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said Wednesday that the military would "certainly" try to capture bin Laden alive and "bring him to justice."

A day earlier, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told a congressional panel that bin Laden would never go on trial in the United States because the chances of him being caught alive are "infinitesimal." He predicted flatly that bin Laden will be killed -- either by U.S. forces or by al-Qaeda operatives determined to prevent him from being captured.

Panetta said the agency has a plan in the event that a top al-Qaeda leader is captured. "The most likely scenario is you bring them to a military facility, and we would then do the questioning" there, he said.

A steady toll on al-Qaeda

Reflecting on his 13 months at the helm of the CIA, Panetta made no prediction about the fate of the man who has eluded a worldwide manhunt for nine years. But he said the combined U.S.-Pakistani campaign is taking a steady toll in terms of al-Qaeda leaders killed and captured, and is undercutting the group's ability to coordinate attacks outside its base along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

To illustrate that progress, U.S. intelligence officials revealed new details of a March 8 killing of a top al-Qaeda commander in the militant stronghold of Miram Shah in North Waziristan, in Pakistan's autonomous tribal region. The al-Qaeda official died in what local news reports described as a missile strike by an unmanned aerial vehicle. In keeping with long-standing practice, the officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the CIA formally declines to acknowledge U.S. participation in attacks inside Pakistani territory.

Hussein al-Yemeni, the man killed in the attack, was identified by one intelligence official as among al-Qaeda's top 20 leaders and a participant in the planning for a Dec. 30 suicide bombing at a CIA base in the province of Khost in eastern Afghanistan. The bombing, in which a Jordanian double agent gained access to the CIA base and killed seven officers and contractors, was the deadliest single blow against the agency in a quarter-century.

Panetta's upbeat remarks contrasted with recent intelligence assessments of continuing terrorist threats against the U.S. homeland. But he also said al-Qaeda will continue to look for ways to strike inside the United States, and he noted that the organization is seeking to recruit people who lack criminal records or known ties to terrorist groups.

He cited the recent examples of Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan immigrant who targeted the New York subway system and pleaded guilty to terrorism charges, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian charged with attempting to detonate explosives on a commercial flight about to land in Detroit.

"How many other Zazis are there -- the people who have a clean record who suddenly, for some crazy reason, decide to get involved with jihad?" Panetta said. "The bomber in Detroit -- this person suddenly goes off, has a U.S. visa, and within 30 days he's recruited to strap a bomb on and come to this country. What we are seeing is that they are now looking for those kind of clean credentials."

Such threats make it all the more necessary to strike al-Qaeda in its home base, Panetta said. "The president gave us the mission to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda and their military allies, and I think that's what we are trying to do."

Secret strikes

Counting the March 8 operation, the CIA is believed to have mounted 22 such strikes this year, putting the agency on course to exceed last year's roughly 53 strikes, a record. The March 8 event is believed to have been the first to occur in an urban area; a U.S. intelligence official familiar with the operation said the building that was targeted housed "a large number of al-Qaeda" fighters who were developing explosives. There were no other casualties, the official said.

Panetta, while declining to comment on the strike itself, said the death of the al-Qaeda commander sent a "very important signal that they are not going to be able to hide in urban areas."

He also cited recent arrests of top Taliban figures -- most notably Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, captured in Karachi in early February -- as tangible evidence of improving ties with Pakistan's intelligence service. He said that Pakistan has given the CIA access to Baradar since his capture and added that "we're getting intelligence" from the interrogation.

A senior intelligence official revealed that Baradar was tracked down as part of a joint operation with Pakistan that targeted members of a Taliban leadership council known as the Quetta Shura. A breakthrough came when the intelligence agencies obtained a list of Taliban phone numbers, one of which led them directly to Baradar, the official said.

Panetta said coordination between the CIA and its Pakistani counterparts had improved over the past year, despite occasional "friction based on past history."

"Generally we've had much better relationships," he said. "We do a lot more operations together. That's how Baradar was captured as well as others. . . . They have been much more tolerant of the operations we have there."

Where is bin Laden?

Panetta said the agency does not know precisely where bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are hiding, but he said agency officials believe the two are inside Pakistan, "either in the northern tribal areas or in North Waziristan, or somewhere in that vicinity."

While there have been no confirmed sightings of either man since 2003, the continued pressure increases the opportunities for catching one or both, Panetta said. "We thought that the increased pressure would do one of two things: that it would either bring them out to try to exert some leadership in what is an organization in real trouble, or that they would go deeper into hiding," he said. "And so far we think they are going deeper into hiding."

Inside the door of Panetta's office is a color-coded map of the tribal areas in Pakistan, the only map on a wall decorated with photographs of Panetta's long career in Washington.

"You can bet there is going to be a conversation in this office during the day that involves something on that map," he said.

Staff writer Craig Whitlock and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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