Internal divisions between Saudi and Egyptian leaders of al Qaeda are producing "fissures" within the terrorist group and a possible battle over who will succeed Osama bin Laden, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden said yesterday.
Mr. Hayden, an Air Force general, also said that al Qaeda regrouped in the past two years inside tribal areas of Pakistan and linked up with Pashtun regional extremists in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.
Bin Laden is now an "iconic" figure hiding in the remote border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, Mr. Hayden said in a wide-ranging interview with editors and reporters of The Washington Times.
"And frankly, then, we think there has been an awful lot of jockeying" among possible successors, Mr. Hayden said.
"Keep in mind, he's a Saudi. An awful lot of that leadership is Egyptian. If the Saudi dies, who becomes the next guy may be quite a contentious matter," he said.
"And there are fissures in al Qaeda because of this dominance of Egyptians inside the senior leadership, where you have a Saudi at the top," Mr. Hayden said during a meeting at CIA headquarters in McLean. "You can only imagine what then happens if he goes and then who comes in."
On interrogation techniques, Mr. Hayden said he favors allowing the use of CIA officers to conduct harsh questioning using actions that are not spelled out in the latest Army Field Manual.
The latest Army Field Manual limits the use of force, but Mr. Hayden said, "The Army Field Manual does not exhaust the universe of lawful interrogation techniques."
Mr. Hayden said he does not know whether Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahri, al Qaeda's No. 2 leader, will take over the group if bin Laden dies.
Terrorism specialists said the Sunni extremist al Qaeda group relies on Saudi Islamists to provide ideological and financial support, while Egyptians, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood, supply practical expertise related to terrorist attacks and other organizational and operational skills.
An intelligence official said there are signs of "tensions" inside al Qaeda, which are being watched closely, especially related to succession. Bin Laden is Saudi and many senior leaders are Egyptian, but many of the extremist foot soldiers are Central Asian.
Al Qaeda successfully regrouped in tribal areas of Pakistan after a 2006 agreement between Pakistan's government and tribal leaders.
Mr. Hayden said CIA operations officers are working aggressively to locate, capture or kill bin Laden, who ordered the September 11 terrorist attacks. U.S. military and government agents are working to "create the opportunity" to get bin Laden.
Asked whether bin Laden is alive, Mr. Hayden said: "We have ... no evidence he's not. And frankly, we think there would be evidence. ... Given the iconic stature, his death would cause a little more than a wake in the harbor."
Bin Laden's efforts to avoid capture have limited his role in al Qaeda's operations, Mr. Hayden said.
"He's putting a lot of his energy into hiding right now."
Zawahri, however, has been "more active," said Mr. Hayden, noting that the chances of getting Zawahri are better because "the more active you are, the more vulnerable you are."
Several of al Qaeda's operational leaders have been killed or captured, including Abu Laith al-Libi in late January.
The tribal regions of Pakistan "have become more of a safe haven for al Qaeda," and "there is more of a nexus between al Qaeda and various Pashtun extremists and separatist groups than we seen in the past," Mr. Hayden said.
"It's a threat to Afghanistan, it's a threat to Pakistan, and frankly, it's a threat to the United States," Mr. Hayden said, noting that Western-appearing terrorists are being trained there.
Al Qaeda has less space to operate in the area than it had in 2003 to 2005. But beginning with a Pakistani government agreement with local tribes in September 2006, terrorists began training and operating more freely, he said.
On other issues, Mr. Hayden said:
• North Korea's government has not provided a full accounting of its plutonium, uranium-enrichment program and arms proliferation. Pyongyang must "readmit" that it has the uranium program, and "our requirement as a nation is they've got to come clean on all three."
North Korea had a uranium-enrichment program, but the status is not clear.
• Efforts to improve CIA human-intelligence capabilities are progressing as the agency shifts from traditional to nontraditional methods, including the greater use of CIA officers and their agents working in "nonofficial cover" slots overseas.
• CIA has issued four directives designed to better coordinate human spying among government agencies, including better source validation, improved reporting and higher management standards.
• A National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program warned that Iran halted work on only one of three aspects of its nuclear program. Iran could "always weaponize inside the timelines we've projected for fissile material."
Work on weaponization was halted in 2003, but weaponization and missile delivery system development has continued, he said.
• Fighting against Taliban extremists in Afghanistan will continue this year at about the same levels as last year, with a shift toward more suicide and vehicle bomb attacks. The Afghan drug trade and a lack of national infrastructure are hampering efforts to defeat the Taliban.
• Stability in Iraq is growing, and economic life is returning to the country as the result of the success of the troop surge. "Tactical successes are beginning to translate into strategic progress," Mr. Hayden said.
• An abrupt pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq would remove needed "competent and evenhanded combat power" from the country. "We are not at the point where the Iraqis can provide all of that," he said. "And I don't think we'll be at that point for some time."
• Congress should pass legislation reauthorizing foreign electronic surveillance and include provisions that immunize telecommunications companies from lawsuits over their cooperation with the government in monitoring international communications.