Strikes on al Qaeda leave only "handful" of top targets

WASHINGTON Fri Jun 22, 2012 12:33am EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nearly one year ago, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta predicted the strategic defeat of al Qaeda was within reach if the United States could kill or capture up to 20 leaders of the core group and its affiliates.

In an interview on Thursday with Reuters, Panetta disclosed that only a "small handful" of the individuals on that original list remained on the battlefield and that Saudi Arabia - the birthplace of late al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden - was reporting a drop-off in recruitment.

"We've not only impacted on their leadership, we've impacted on their capability to provide any kind of command and control in terms of operations," Panetta said.

The U.S. defense chief visited Saudi Arabia on Wednesday and after paying U.S. condolences over the death of the late crown prince, spoke about al Qaeda with one of his sons, Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who has run the kingdom's operations against al Qaeda as a deputy interior minister.

"I asked him the question - as a result of the bin Laden raid, as a result of what we've done to their leadership, where are we with al Qaeda," Panetta recounted, adding that al Qaeda and bin Laden "came out of Saudi Arabia."

"Bin Nayef said, ‘For the first time, what I'm seeing is that young people are no longer attracted to al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia.'"

Panetta did not single out which leaders from his target list last year remained, but current al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri is one he named last year and who is still believed to be living in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Asked how many targets remained, Panetta said, "It's a small handful and it's growing smaller all the time."

On other topics, Panetta in the interview:

* Defended the U.S. decision not to arm opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but said he was concerned that shoulder-fired missiles stolen from Libya last year could make their way to Syria. He said he had seen no direct intelligence yet suggesting they had.

* All but ruled out an apology over an air strike last year that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, as Islamabad has demanded, saying it was "time to move on" in the troubled U.S.-Pakistan relationship.

* Said Iraq had given assurances to the United States that it would not release a suspected Hezbollah operative accused of killing American troops, whom the United States turned over to Iraqi custody last December just before the last U.S. troops exited the country.

AL QAEDA SURVIVAL PROSPECTS

After addressing questions about the future of al Qaeda's top leadership, Panetta shifted his focus to the group's ability to survive as a movement at all.

"We'll keep the pressure on at the top and we'll keep going after their leadership," Panetta said.

"But the real issue that will determine the end of al Qaeda is when they find it difficult to recruit any new people."

The killing of bin Laden in a covert U.S. raid in Pakistan last year has been followed by a series of unmanned aerial attacks that have crushed al Qaeda's network along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.

The latest high-profile al Qaeda leader killed in the U.S. campaign was Abu Yahya al-Libi, the group's second-in-command, who broke out of a high-security U.S. prison in neighboring Afghanistan in 2005 and was a key strategist.

Beyond the Afghan-Pakistan region, another key figure killed last year was Anwar al-Awlaki, an American imam who became a senior leader of al Qaeda's Yemen-based affiliate.

While successful tactically, the drone strikes have further poisoned U.S.-Pakistan relations and, critics say, raise questions about international law and could boost militant recruiting.

Only about eight hard-core al Qaeda leaders are still believed to be based in the lawless borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan, compared with dozens a few years ago.

(Editing by Warren Strobel and Peter Cooney)

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Comments (3)
1964 wrote:
Al Qaida’s fight for freedom from American interference in their countries is not unlike the US minute men fighting against the English and the French Underground fighting against the Nazis. It is sad that the US has not tolerance for other people’s desire to live free from oppression by a superpower gone out of hand and that any revolt anywhere in the world against oppression will become more and more difficult and more and more bloody, because of US interference. For the US to believe that the world is seeing it as the beacon of liberty and democracy is at best a fallacious American self-betrayal. In reality most countries and people in the world are afraid of America because they find themselves faced by larger and larger obstacles to their own freedom and larger and larger self-sacrifice necessary to even try.

How much greater would the US now be if it had acted in support of genuine freedom instead of pretending by using groups like the Mujaheddin y Qalq to subvert and kill in Iran.

Jun 21, 2012 12:37am EDT  --  Report as abuse
McBob08 wrote:
So long as America remains in Afghanistan and Iraq, there will be plenty of drive for Al-Qaida membership in those countries. The whole reason Al-Qaida formed in the first place was a protest against American meddling in the middle east; especially in arming Israel and supporting that country’s Apartheid against its indigenous Palestinians. Israel likes to scream that the Arabs hated them, but if the Arabs do, they have a very good excuse for their hatred, given Israel’s militant, terrorist and imperialistic ways, constantly invading their neighbours for no good reason.

Killing people will never destroy al-Qaida; it will just empower the movement, but this time without you knowing who the real leaders are. The only thing that will destroy al-Qaida is pulling totally out of Afghanistan, Iraq, and the rest of the middle east, and pulling all support for the criminal government of Israel.

Jun 22, 2012 1:57am EDT  --  Report as abuse
onlyif wrote:
go the drones! i’d say bomb ‘em back to the stone age, but there already there.

Jun 22, 2012 8:37pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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