The U.S.-led war against al Qaeda is relentless and will not end, even if the United States or its allies kill the terrorist group's new leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, the Obama administration's top counterterrorism official said on Wednesday.
Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan said in a television interview that defeating al Qaeda's brand of terrorism is "a many-year effort."
"So we cannot relent. We cannot, even with the death of [Osama] bin Laden - and if we get Zawahri and others, that is not reason for us to relax." Mr. Brennan made the remarks on PBS "Newshour" program.
The comments from Mr. Brennan that the United States must remain engaged in counterterrorism operations all over the world, even if most of al Qaeda's core leadership are killed or captured, reflects rising concerns that al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa have developed new capabilities to strike the United States.
At the same time, his remarks suggest that the war begun nearly 10 years ago after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks runs the risk of becoming a permanent war with no clear sign when it will end.
Last month, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano declined to say when U.S. security policies could return to a pre-9/11 counterterrorism footing.
In the PBS interview, Mr. Brennan confirmed that material found in Osama bin Laden's Pakistan compound and gathered by special-operations commandos during the fatal raid suggested the group was planning an attack in the United States to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks this Sunday.
"We know from the material that was recovered from the bin Laden compound that bin Laden was looking at the 10th anniversary of 9/11 as an opportunity to strike yet again at the U.S. homeland," he said. "Our intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies have been very, very diligent in looking at all the different potential actors out there."
Mr. Brennan also confirmed that a former Pakistani military officer who became a key operational planner for al Qaeda named Ilyas al-Kashmiri is dead. In a speech given earlier this year, Mr. Brennan only alluded to reports of Kashmiri's death. Mr. Kashmiri was thought to have been killed by a drone missile strike in 2009, but later emerged to give an interview disputing those claims. He was first reported to be killed again earlier this year.
Kashmiri is widely credited as the mastermind of the commando-style raid in 2008 in downtown Mumbai.
In the interview Wednesday, Mr. Brennan, as he has in the past, disassociated al Qaeda from Islam, saying the group distorted the religion's teachings.
"They're murderers, and we need to do everything possible to eliminate the threat that they pose to us," he said. "But also work with the countries overseas to make sure that they build the institutions as well as provide for their people, you know, the opportunities that will make the terrorists' ideology blatantly bankrupt."
Mr. Brennan said al Qaeda's core leadership "really has taken it on the chin significantly as a result of our and Pakistani efforts." But he noted that other al Qaeda affiliates still pose major risks.
"These franchises are active," he said. "They're carrying out attacks against locals - the Yemenis, you know, the Iraqis and others. And, also, there are elements that are trying to carry out attacks against us - American interests in those countries as well as to try to do things in the homeland here."
The attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 by Nigerian national Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was linked by U.S. intelligence to al Qaeda's affiliate based in Yemen. A senior cleric for that affiliate and U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, is one of the top English-language sermonizers for al Qaeda.
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