WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Al Qaeda is training fighters that “look western” and could easily cross U.S. borders without attracting attention, CIA Director Michael Hayden said on Sunday.
The militant Islamist group has turned Pakistan’s remote tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan into a safe haven, and is using it to plot further attacks against the United States, Hayden said.
“They are bringing operatives into that region for training — operatives that wouldn’t attract your attention if they were going through the customs line at Dulles (airport outside Washington) with you when you were coming back from overseas,” Hayden said during an interview on NBC’s television show Meet the Press.
“(They) look western (and) would be able to come into this country without attracting the kinds of attention that others might,” Hayden said, without offering further details.
The United States went to war in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks on U.S. cities in order to crush al Qaeda and hunt down its chief, Osama bin Laden, who Hayden confirmed was still believed by the United States to be hiding in the rugged Afghan border area.
The Washington Post reported on Thursday that the United States had stepped up unilateral attacks on al Qaeda targets in Pakistan because it fears the country’s newly elected leaders will soon curb U.S. actions on their soil. Pakistan’s pro-U.S. president, Pervez Musharraf, has been weakened by the defeat of his allies in the country’s recent elections.
Hayden declined to comment directly on the Post article, but he stressed that the tribal regions were very sensitive.
“The situation along that Afghanistan/Pakistan border presents a clear and present danger to Afghanistan, to Pakistan, to the West in general and the United States in particular,” Hayden said.
“It is very clear to us that al Qaeda has been able over the last 18 months or so to establish a safe haven along the Afghan/Pakistan border that they have not enjoyed before.”
Asked directly whether he feared Musharraf might not be around as president for much longer to support the United States, Hayden said he did not know, but praised what the country had already delivered.
“We have not had a better partner in the war against terrorism than the Pakistani government,” he said.
Reporting by Alister Bull; Editing by Patricia Zengerle