On the eve of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, President Obama’s top counterterrorism official said Thursday that al Qaeda is “an organization in distress” as it reels from the death of founder Osama bin Laden and other top operatives, but added that he had not seen any intelligence suggesting Pakistani officials were knowingly harboring the terrorist at the time of his death in May.
John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, said the network still is determined to carry out another attack on U.S. soil, but he challenged conventional wisdom that such an event is inevitable, citing the lessons intelligence officials have learned from failed attempts over the past several years.
“Every day, we as a nation become stronger and better prepared,” Mr. Brennan told reporters at a breakfast Thursday sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “But that doesn’t mean terrorists can’t find seams that they might try to take advantage of.”
Yet even as al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, Algeria and elsewhere pose a continued threat, Mr. Brennan said, the killing of bin Laden by U.S. special forces in May and the subsequent killings of two senior al Qaeda members, Ilyas al-Kashmiri and Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, have the network focused primarily on its own survival.
“And as far as I’m concerned, if they’re worried about their security, that just enhances our security because they have less time to plot and scheme,” he said.
Mr. Brennan said evidence recovered at bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, confirmed the infamous terrorist was still in operational control of the network at the time of his death and was focused on attacking the U.S. a decade after the deadly attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
Notably, Mr. Brennan said he hasn’t yet seen any evidence that Pakistani officials were complicit in the harboring of bin Laden at the house close by the nation’s largest military academy — something, he acknowledged, most initially assumed.
In the years since 9/11, U.S. security officials have learned crucial lessons from a string of thwarted terrorist plots, including would-be bombings of a Northwest jet over Detroit, Times Square and the New York City subway. As a result, Mr. Brennan said, contemporary intelligence analysis is more dynamic and capable of piecing together travel patterns and other disparate information to sketch out possible threats.
Counterterrorism officials also have greatly improved partnerships with other countries, he said.
“Compared to 9/11, we have moved light years,” Mr. Brennan said, citing in particular the U.S. relationship with security officials in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of bin Laden. “There has been a sea change. Saudi Arabia acknowledged that it had ignored some of the problems inside its country and that al Qaeda had taken root there. … The relationship with Saudi Arabia now on the counterterrorism front is among the very best in the world.”
Critics who say information-sharing is uncoordinated or not effective “don’t know what they’re talking about,” he added.
One of the most immediate overseas goals for U.S. officials right now is helping Libya secure the stockpile of weapons amassed by fugitive leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi. As is the case with Somalia, Mr. Brennan said, terrorists naturally are attracted to failed states and countries with grave internal conflicts that exacerbate the risk of al Qaeda and other networks acquiring not only weapons but a safe haven out of which to operate.