WASHINGTON -- General Michael Hayden, the director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, has said that Al-Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, remain isolated in the remote mountains of Pakistan near the Afghan border.
Hayden said there are three important points to remember about the U.S. fight against Al-Qaeda. First, while the group has suffered serious setbacks, it remains determined and adaptive. Second, it's resilient and vulnerable. And third, it remains the most serious threat to the United States.
As a result, Hayden said, protecting the West from Al-Qaeda -- and capturing or killing bin Laden -- remain the CIA's top priority.
Speaking on November 13 at the offices of the Atlantic Council, which promotes U.S. leadership in trans-Atlantic affairs, Hayden said the West is winning the war against Al-Qaeda. He pointed to the dramatic drop in the level of violence in Iraq, and what he called the "awakening" of Sunni militias there who have renounced Al-Qaeda and allied themselves with U.S. forces.
As a result, Hayden said, many militants have left the cause of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. This departure from -- he called it "bleed-out" -- is at least in part a concern because many of these militants go elsewhere to start trouble, although others merely return home to resume normal lives.
But whatever these militants end up doing, Hayden said, their exodus shows that the Al-Qaeda effort in Iraq has failed. "This 'bleed-out' problem is one we have always known we would have to deal with," he said. "But I frankly take a great deal of personal consolation in knowing that that shift, that shift we're seeing, is further evidence that Al-Qaeda in Iraq has failed."
According to Hayden, some militants leaving the Al-Qaeda cause in Iraq have shifted their activities to North Africa, East Africa, and Yemen. But as these movements grow, there's evidence that Al-Qaeda is failing elsewhere, particularly in Saudi Arabia and in Southeast Asia.
"But make no mistake, what I've just mentioned -- East Africa, North Africa, Yemen -- these are not problems on the same scale as Iraq or Saudi Arabia [used to be]," he said. "But Al-Qaeda's strength in these areas demonstrates not only its adaptability and determination, but that characteristic I've mentioned several times now, resilience."
But Hayden said his counterparts in many Muslim countries now call Al-Qaeda "un-Islamic," in particular criticizing what they see as the group's indiscriminate use of violence against innocent civilians. The CIA chief said this is evidence that the West is winning the "war of ideas" over terrorism.
This leaves Al-Qaeda somewhat isolated in Pakistan's rugged tribal area. While this arduous existence contributes to the organization's resilience and its ability to threaten the West, Hayden said, it also represents Al-Qaeda's key vulnerability.
"[The] truth is, it's not all that easy to build a worldwide terrorist network and manage a global fight from an isolated outpost in northwestern Pakistan," he said. "And to the extent that the United States and its allies deepen that isolation, disturb the safe haven, target terrorist leaders there, we keep Al-Qaeda off-balance."
And that, Hayden said, is the crucial difference between how the United States confronted terrorism before the September 11, 2001, attacks, and how it confronts it today. Previously, he said, Washington was on the defensive. Now, he said, it's bringing the fight to the enemy.