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Al-Qaida 'Decimated,' says US Counterterrorism Chief

John Brennan exits a daily news briefing at the White House, May 2, 2011

John Brennan exits a daily news briefing at the White House, May 2, 2011

The Obama administration has laid out a new national counterterrorism strategy. In a speech Wednesday, the administration’s top counterterrorism advisor outlined a plan of beefing up cooperation with other countries to keep pressure on what he says is a seriously weakened al-Qaida terror organization.

Al-Qaida in decline

Speaking at The Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, counterterrorism advisor John Brennan said increased pressure on al-Qaida has paid off. He said the United States and partners like Pakistan and Yemen have greatly weakened al-Qaida, strangling its finances and decimating its leadership ranks, culminating in the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of a U.S. raiding party.

"Taken together, the progress I’ve described allows us - for the first time - to envision the demise of al-Qaida’s core leadership in the coming years. It will take time, but make no mistake - al-Qaida is in its decline. This is by no means meant to suggest that the serious threat from al-Qaida has passed; not at all," he said.

Brennan said al-Qaida might still try to mount revenge attacks for bin Laden’s death. He said that with the weakening of the South Asian-based al-Qaida parent organization, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula still poses a significant threat.

Brennan, a former CIA officer, said the so-called "Arab Spring" democracy movements have undermined al-Qaida’s ideology and its ability to attract new recruits.

"This, obviously, is also the first counterterrorism strategy to reflect the extraordinary political changes that are sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. It’s true that these changes may bring new challenges and uncertainty in the short-term, as we are seeing in Yemen. It also is true that terrorist organizations, and nations that support them, will seek to capitalize on the instability that change can sometimes bring," he said.

New strategy

The newly released strategy document that Brennan outlined in his speech cites four core principles for U.S. counterterrorism efforts: adhering to American core values, building resilience to recover from a successful attack, building counterterrorism partnerships with other nations, and using the proper tools and capabilities in attacking terrorists. It adds that the United States has security partnerships with countries that do not share American values or even regional and global security views, but only a mutual desire to defeat al-Qaida. Nevertheless, it adds, counterterrorism partnerships allow the United States to demonstrate values of human rights and responsible governance.

Partnership with Pakistan

Brennan said different threats require different responses in different places. He said that as frustrating as the partnership with Pakistan has sometimes been, it nevertheless is critical to success against al-Qaida. And Brennan added that the United States will keep applying the pressure against al-Qaida, as necessary.

"In some places, such as the tribal regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, we will deliver precise and overwhelming force against al-Qaida," he said. "Whenever possible, our efforts around the world will be in close coordination with our partners. And when necessary, as the president has said repeatedly, if we have information about the whereabouts of al-Qaida, we will do what is required to protect the United States - as we did with bin Laden."

Brennan said that to his knowledge Pakistan’s leaders were unaware that the world’s most wanted terrorist was hiding in a compound not far from Pakistan’s academy for educating military officers. But he added that would not be surprising because bin Laden and his associates were extraordinarily careful.

"That’s not to say that there weren’t elements in the Pakistani broad establishment that were knowledgeable, that provided assistance," he said. "But looking at that situation, bin Laden and the people at that compound practiced absolutely phenomenal OPSEC [i.e., operational security]. He was there for six years. To our knowledge, he never left that compound once he got there."

Brennan said material seized in bin Laden’s compound shows the terrorist chief was worried about al-Qaida’s long-term viability, with calls for more large-scale attacks against the United States running into resistance from his followers.