Relentless attacks against al-Qaida in the Pakistan tribal region appear to have driven Osama bin Laden and other top leaders deeper into hiding, leaving the organization rudderless and less capable of planning sophisticated operations, CIA director Leon Panetta said yesterday.
So profound is al-Qaida's disarray that one of its lieutenants, in a recently intercepted message, pleaded to bin Laden to come to the group's rescue and provide some leadership, Panetta told The Washington Post.
Panetta credited an increasingly aggressive campaign against al-Qaida and its Taliban allies, including more frequent strikes and better coordination with Pakistan, in a near-acknowledgment of the CIA's war against extremists in Pakistan. He called it "the most aggressive operation that CIA has been involved in our history."
"Those operations are seriously disrupting al-Qaida," 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."
The comments came as a senior U.S. intelligence official revealed new details of a March 8 killing of a top al-Qaida commander in the militant stronghold of Miram Shah in North Waziristan, in Pakistan's autonomous tribal region. The al-Qaida official died in what local news reports described as a missile strike by a drone.
Hussein al-Yemeni, the man killed in the attack, was identified by an intelligence official as among al-Qaida'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.
Panetta's upbeat remarks during a 40-minute interview contrasted with recent U.S. intelligence assessments of continuing terrorist threats against the U.S. homeland, and in the wake of the suicide attack, in which a Jordanian double-agent was able to gain access to a CIA base and kill nine intelligence operatives.
Panetta acknowledged that al-Qaida was continuing to look for ways to kill Americans and was specifically seeking to recruit people who lacked criminal records or known ties to terrorist groups to carry out missions.
Counting the March 8 operation, the agency is believed to have mounted 22 such strikes this year, putting the CIA on course to exceed last year's roughly 53 strikes, a record.
Panetta, declining to comment on the strike itself, said the death of the al-Qaida commander sent a "very important signal that they are not going to be able to hide in urban areas."
Panetta acknowledged the agency did not know precisely where bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, are hiding, but said agency officials believe the two are inside Pakistan, "either in the northern tribal areas or in North Waziristan, or somewhere in that vicinity."