Washington: Al-Qaida has suffered setbacks due to US pressure but its presence in Yemen threatens to turn that country into a dangerous base for training and plotting attacks, a top US counterterrorism official said.
The extremist network has been steadily weakened since its attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001, with its haven in northwest Pakistan smaller and less secure, Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told a US Senate hearing.
But he said the group`s regional affiliates were a growing threat, citing a branch in Yemen as cause for serious concern.
Saudi and Yemeni arms of al-Qaida announced in January their merger into "al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula" (AQAP), and US officials are worried the group is gaining a dangerous foothold in Yemen.
"We have witnessed the re-emergence of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, with Yemen as a key battleground and potential regional base of operations from which al-Qaida can plan attacks, train recruits, and facilitate the movement of operatives," Leiter said.
"We are concerned that if AQAP strengthens, al-Qaida leaders could use the group and the growing presence of foreign fighters in the region to supplement its transnational operations capability," Leiter said before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
A suicide attack in August on Saudi Arabia`s anti-terror chief Prince Mohammed bin Nayef was carried out by a bomber who crossed from Yemen.
The United States also was concerned about al-Qaida`s links with Somalia`s hardline Islamist group Shebab, Leiter said.
Leaders of Shebab "are working with a limited number of East Africa-based al-Qaida operatives," he said.
Shebab has attracted hundreds of recruits from around the world, including dozens of ethnic Somalis from the United States, he said.
Most of the US nationals who have travelled to Somalia to fight and train with Shebab "have been primarily motivated by nationalism and identification with the Somali cause" and not by al-Qaida`s agenda, he said.
But he said US agencies remained concerned at the possibility of al-Qaida operatives recruiting Americans to return to the United States and launch attacks.
The death this month of wanted al-Qaida regional leader Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, killed in a US military strike by special forces could temporarily disrupt al-Qaida`s links with Shebab, according to Leiter.
al-Qaida had also expanded its presence in North Africa, exploiting a haven in Mali and carrying out "low-level operations" in Mauritania, he said.