Al-Qaida faces an "internal power struggle" weeks after the death of founder and longtime leader Osama bin Laden, a counterterrorism expert testified before the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday.
Bin Laden was killed this month during a U.S. commando raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Al-Jazeera reported last week that Egyptian extremist Saif al-Adel had been named interim chief of the terrorist group. Al-Adel, who helped develop the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa, is viewed as al-Qaida's senior most military commander. His promotion was a surprise to some terrorism experts who anticipated that bin Laden's longtime deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, would be named the new permanent leader.
"Al-Qaida has failed to name a new leader because there is clearly an internal power struggle. There was no agreed-upon succession plan. There is no one of bin Laden's stature to inspire and guide operations and quell disputes," former Bush administration counterterrorism adviser Fran Townsend said during a hearing on threats to the nation.
Committee ranking member Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., noted: "In every group, the death of a leader causes disarray and confusion among the followers. These periods of transition can last for weeks or years.
"When we consider the safety of our country, the question that matters most is: What will we do while the terrorists are in the throes of transition?" he said.
Townsend indicated that Washington could exploit "the chaos at the top of al-Qaida" but warned of the continued threat posed by various militant organizations, particularly the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
The group has been connected to the attempted Christmas Day 2009 bombing of a passenger aircraft as it prepared to land in Detroit and for the effort to hide explosives in printer cartridges loaded onto cargo aircraft. It is also believed to have an interest in acquiring biological and chemical weapons, according to U.S. officials.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula "has both the intent to attack and has demonstrated some capability," Townsend said. The group "was behind the Nidal Hasan Fort Hood event, the attempted Christmas Day bomber, and the recent computer cartridges attempt.... There are other [al-Qaida] affiliates that I won't go into in depth--the one in North Africa, those in Somalia and Asia--but AQAP poses the most immediate threat."
Without bin Laden's unifying leadership, it is not clear what direction increasingly diffuse al-Qaida regional cells will take in choosing new targets to strike. A trove of captured intelligence from the Abbottabad compound has revealed that bin Laden repeatedly urged his followers to focus their attacks on U.S. targets as opposed to regional locations.
The Pakistani Taliban, which provided training to failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, is also a "direct threat" to the United States, Townsend said.
"We must be careful not to write off radical groups that appear only regionally or locally focused, as was the initial belief of the Pakistan Taliban. Lashkar-e-Taiba, LeT, which was behind the Mumbai attack, is currently the subject of the trial in Chicago right now. And the Haqqani network in the Pakistan tribal areas continues to target and kill coalition forces in Afghanistan," Townsend said.
The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for this week's attack on a naval base in Karachi, an event that points to a less-capable Pakistani military than was previously believed, she said. The assault has renewed worries about the security of the South Asian nation's nuclear weapons.
Committee Chairman Peter King, R-N.Y., said he believes the risk to the United States of another terrorist attack has been heightened in the near future.
"Just looking at al-Qaida's own language, the fact is that they feel they have to not just avenge [the death of bin Laden], but they have to show the rest of the world, the rest of the Muslim world, the rest of the terror world that they are viable, that they are vibrant as before," the lawmaker said.
Thompson said he was concerned by potential vulnerabilities that could be exploited by a proposed $1 billion reduction to the Homeland Security Department budget for fiscal 2012.
Townsend also warned against unwise budget cuts and emphasized the need for maintaining security measures such as the controversial Patriot Act.
"We must prevent terrorists from getting a nuclear or ... biological weapon, and that means we must ensure we have the ability to respond by maintaining the Strategic National Stockpile and our other unique operational capabilities," she said.
Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, one of the leaders of the September 11 commission, said that the nation is "undoubtedly safer and more secure" than at the time of the 2001 attacks. However, he testified he also worries about the failure by Washington to take up some of the commission's terrorism defense recommendations.
A key point is oversight of U.S. intelligence services and the Homeland Security Department, according to Hamilton.
"The committee is well aware--better than most anybody else--of the fractured oversight of DHS," he said. "I need not give the statistics to you. It's an inefficient allocation of limited resources needed to secure our nation, and the massive department of the DHS will be much better integrated if there is integrated oversight."
The National Security Preparedness Group, led by Hamilton and former 9/11 commission Chairman Thomas Kean, expects to soon issue a report with proposals for bolstering protections against "radicalization," the former lawmaker told the committee.
"Because ... al-Qaida and its affiliates with not give up, we cannot let our guard down," he said.
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