WASHINGTON – Even as Al Qaeda strengthens its hub in the Pakistani mountains, its leaders are building closer ties to regional militant groups in order to launch attacks in Africa and Europe and on the Arabian Peninsula, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency said Thursday.
The director, Michael V. Hayden, identified North Africa and Somalia as places where Qaeda leaders were using partnerships to establish new bases. Elsewhere, Mr. Hayden said, Al Qaeda was “strengthening” in Yemen, and he added that veterans of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan had moved there, possibly to stage attacks against the government of Saudi Arabia.
He said the “bleed out” from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also extended to North Africa, raising concern that the countries there could be used to stage attacks into Europe. Mr. Hayden delivered his report in a speech to the Atlantic Council of the United States in Washington, and it offered a mixed assessment of Al Qaeda’s ability to wage a global jihad.
He drew a contrast between what he described as growing Islamic radicalism in places like Somalia and what he said had been the “strategic defeat” of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia – the network’s affiliate group in Iraq.
Still, Mr. Hayden said that Pakistan’s tribal areas remained Al Qaeda’s most significant operations base because the group’s close ties to Pashtun tribes in the region gave Qaeda militants a sanctuary to plan attacks on Western targets.
“Today, virtually every major terrorist threat my agency is aware of has threads back to the tribal areas,” he said.
His remarks were the first public appraisal of Al Qaeda’s Pakistan sanctuary since the C.I.A. escalated what had been a secret campaign of airstrikes in the tribal areas over the summer.
President Bush signed orders in July allowing the C.I.A. to broaden the campaign.
The C.I.A. used to focus remotely piloted Predator aircraft attacks on a relatively small number of Arab fighters in the tribal areas, but it has begun striking Pakistani militant leaders as well as convoys bound for Afghanistan to resupply militant fighters there.
Mr. Hayden pointedly refused to give details about the strikes by remotely piloted aircraft, or even to acknowledge that they occurred. He did say that the recent killing of senior Qaeda operatives had disrupted the group’s planning and isolated its leadership.
In mid-October, a missile fired from an American drone killed Khalid Habib, the latest senior Qaeda planner to be killed this year in Pakistan.
“To the extent that the United States and its allies deepen that isolation, disturb the safe haven, and target terrorist leaders gathered there, we keep Al Qaeda off balance,” Mr. Hayden said.
The radicalization of Pashtun tribes, and their strengthening ties to Qaeda operatives, date in part to the decision by the Pakistani president at the time, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to raid the radical Red Mosque in Islamabad in July 2007, the C.I.A. director said. That raid, at the end of an eight-day siege of the mosque by government troops, killed scores of Pakistani militants.
At the end of his remarks, Mr. Hayden deflected questions about whether he would consider remaining at the C.I.A. during the Obama administration and declined to say whether President-elect Barack Obama had asked him to extend his tenure.
“This is the business of the transition team,” Mr. Hayden said. “This is the business of the president-elect.”