WASHINGTON (AFP) – Osama bin Laden, deeply isolated and likely near the rugged Afghanistan-Pakistan border, has been forced to devote much of his energy to his own security while his Al-Qaeda terror network remains resilient, CIA Director Michael Hayden said Thursday.
“He is putting a lot of energy into his own survival, a lot of energy into his own security. In fact, he appears to be largely isolated from the day-to-day operations of the organization he nominally heads,” Hayden said in a speech, referring to Al-Qaeda.
The CIA chief suggested that bin Laden was hiding somewhere in the remote Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, where he said Al-Qaeda has regrouped and bolstered its organization.
Hayden described “the sheer challenge of surveying every square mile of that inhospitable and dangerous region,” and said “part of the explanation for his survival lies in the fact that he has worked to avoid detection.”
But he said hunting down bin Laden remains a high priority for the Central Intelligence Agency.
“Although there has been press speculation to the contrary, I can assure you that the hunt for bin Laden is very much at the top of CIA’s priority list.”
He said killing or capturing the Saudi-born bin Laden would deal a severe blow to the terror group blamed for the attacks of September 11, 2001.
“Because of his iconic stature, his death or capture clearly would have a significant impact on the confidence of his followers, both core Al-Qaeda and these unaffiliated extremists … throughout the world.”
In a speech before the Atlantic Council think tank examining the threat posed by Al-Qaeda, Hayden said the network had “suffered serious setbacks, but it remains a determined, adaptive enemy, unlike any our nation has ever faced.”
Hayden, appointed in May 2006 by President George W. Bush, may soon be stepping down as CIA chief amid media speculation that president-elect Barack Obama may choose to replace him and National Intelligence director Mike McConnell when he takes office on January 20.
During the campaign Obama vowed to hunt down bin Laden, accusing Bush of diverting resources from the war in Afghanistan and the hunt for bin Laden to fight what he has called an unnecessary war in Iraq.
In his speech, Hayden described the tribal areas of Pakistan as an Al-Qaeda “safe haven” that is linked to every major terrorist threat against the United States.
“Let me be very clear: Today, virtually every major terrorist threat that my agency is aware of has threads back to the tribal areas. Whether it’s command and control, training, direction, money, capabilities, there is a connection to the FATA,” Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
Al-Qaeda was on the retreat in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Iraq, while it had strengthened in Pakistan and expanded its activity into North Africa, Somalia and Yemen, he said.
The group was cultivating Somali extremists, gaining strength in Yemen where attacks were on the rise, and striking Western targets in Algeria — including French tourists and workers.
“North Africa, East Africa, Yemen serve as kind of a counterweight to the good news out of Iraq, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere,” he said, adding that the problems in North and East Africa were not as serious as previous threats elsewhere.
Taking questions after his speech, Hayden said Al-Qaeda had exploited a peace deal orchestrated by General Pervez Musharraf’s former government with militants in the tribal regions.
Musharraf’s approach, focusing on long-term development of the remote area, would have been “wise and far-seeing” except for the immediate threat posed by Al-Qaeda in Pakistan, he said.
“But our enemies took advantage of that respite, took advantage of that breathing space to build up the kind of safe haven that I described in my remarks.”
Hayden praised Pakistan’s new government for launching major military assaults on insurgents in the region, referring to “tough fighting against hardened militants.”
He also said Pashtun separatists in Afghanistan had forged an “operational alliance” with Al-Qaeda fighters across the border in Pakistan, which became clear a year ago and was a “troubling” development.
Al-Qaeda not only used Pakistan as a headquarters but now posed a direct threat to the government in Islamabad, he said, citing bin Laden’s call for open war against Pakistan after a military raid on the Qaeda-linked Red Mosque.