The Envoy

White House counterterrorism adviser: Al Qaeda holding ground in Yemen

The Envoy

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White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan. (Michael Bonfigli/Christian Science Monitor)

White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said Thursday the United States faces a continuing threat from al Qaeda and its affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa, even amid the considerable American successes in going after the terrorist organization's leaders in Pakistan, including Osama bin Laden.

"Anytime there is a power vacuum, as in Somalia, and Yemen, Al Qaeda is attracted to it," Brennan told journalists at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor Thursday.

Brennan, who previously served as a senior CIA official--including as station chief in Saudi Arabia--and as the first head of the federal government's post-9/11 terrorism threat analysis center, said he has seen no evidence in the four months since a Navy Seal team killed Bin Laden that there was any Pakistani government complicity in sheltering bin Laden. (You can see some of his comments in the YouTube video clip below.)

Brennan warned that Moammar Gadhafi's considerable weapons arsenals, along with still-weak governing institutions in Libya after his ouster, could create a tempting and dangerous "arms bazaar" for jihadists.

"Libya was a counterterrorism partner of ours," Brennan said. The al Qaeda affiliate in north Africa, known as Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb or AQIM, "which had operated there, has longstanding ties to core al Qaeda. ... AQIM is looking at Libya as a place to acquire additional weapons."

"The battle for Libya ... has gone well from a military standpoint, but now issues of governance and standing up of institutions is what lies ahead," he continued. "Individuals of various types are looking to places like Libya to fight, and they see it as a potential arms bazaar they could take advantage of."

Brennan said the United States has observed some alarming trends by al Qaeda's Yemeni affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). American analysts believe the Yemeni affiliate rivals al Qaeda's base in Pakistan's tribal areas as the chief terrorist threat to the United States.

AQAP "is now taking on more the characteristics of an insurgency, it has held ground in the south [of Yemen], which is not consistent with its terrorist background, which is more 'hit and run,'" Brennan said. Meantime, he noted, the Yemeni government's ability to fight AQAP is hampered by continuing domestic unrest and a power vacuum.Yemen's president Ali Abdullah Saleh has been recovering in Saudi Arabia since a June attack on his presidential palace.

Brennan, who went in July to Saudi Arabia to meet with Saleh, said the United States continues to urge him to agree to a plan put forward by neighboring Persian Gulf states to transfer power.

"The Yemenis know our position," on urging Saleh to step down, Brennan said. In the interim, however, he noted, "counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen is better than it's been in years."

Asked by a reporter if terrorism still remains an "existential threat" to the United States, Brennan said the use of violence by human beings to cause terror goes back millenia and is unlikely to ever go away. But he said the United States remains deeply concerned and determined to try to prevent terrorist groups from being able to obtain mass-casualty weapons, including nuclear and radioactive material, and chemical and biological weapons.

"Clearly we are ever vigilant and watching carefully terrorist efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction," Brennan said. "If that material gets in the hands of a terrorist group, it would be catastrophic and we want to stay one step ahead of them. If the potential for an existential terrorist threat exists, I think it's there."

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