May 30, 2008 / 4:55 AM / 12 years ago

Al Qaeda near defeat, on defensive: CIA chief

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Al Qaeda is essentially defeated in Iraq and Saudi Arabia and on the defensive throughout much of the world, CIA Director Michael Hayden said in a Washington Post interview published on Friday.

Central Intelligence Agency Director Michael Hayden speaks to reporters in Washington December 13, 2007. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The upbeat assessment came less than a year after the CIA warned of new threats from a resurgent al Qaeda, the Post said.

“On balance, we are doing pretty well,” Hayden told the newspaper this week citing major gains against Osama bin Laden’s network and its allies.

“Near strategic defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq. Near strategic defeat for al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. Significant setbacks for al Qaeda globally — and here I’m going to use the word ‘ideologically,’ as a lot of the Islamic world pushes back on their form of Islam,” Hayden said.

U.S. officials blame al Qaeda in Iraq for most big bombings in the country, including an attack on a Shi’ite shrine in Samarra in February 2006 that set off a wave of sectarian killings that nearly tipped Iraq into all-out civil war.

Hayden told the Post that counter-terrorism successes extend even to the lawless region along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where bin Laden is believed to be living.

“The ability to kill and capture key members of al-Qaeda continues, and keeps them off balance — even in their best safe haven along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border,” Hayden said.

Hayden said capturing or killing bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, remains a top priority, although he noted the difficulties in finding them in the remote region where the U.S. military is officially forbidden to operate, the Post reported.

Hayden said al-Qaeda’s global leadership has lost three senior officers since the start of the year, including two who succumbed “to violence,” an apparent reference to missile strikes from drone Predator aircraft in Pakistan, the Post reported.

The CIA chief also cited a successful blow against “training activity” in the region, but offered no details, the newspaper said.

Despite the optimistic outlook, the Post said Hayden expressed concern that the progress against al Qaeda could be halted or reversed because of what he views as growing complacency and a return to the mind-set that existed before the September 11 attacks.

“The fact that we have kept safe for pushing seven years now has got them back into the state of mind where ‘safe’ is normal,” Hayden said. “Our view is: Safe is hard-won, every 24 hours.”

Writing by JoAnne Allen; editing by Patricia Zengerle

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