WASHINGTON -- Political chaos and social unrest in Yemen have not hindered that nation's cooperation with the United States in countering terrorist activities, CIA Director Leon Panetta told a congressional panel on Thursday.
Testifying at a confirmation hearing to become the next Defense secretary, Panetta appeared to suggest that Yemen's assistance has continued even after President Ali Abdullah Saleh was injured in a June 3 attack on his compound.
The blast killed seven people and wounded several senior officials. Saleh left the country a day later for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. He was reportedly being treated for an injury to the head and burns over 40 percent of his body.
Yemen has "been destabilized and yet, we are continuing to work with those individuals in their government to try to go after AQAP," said Panetta, using an acronym for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The Yemen-based group is an affiliate of al-Qaeda that has repeatedly plotted attacks against the United States.
The explosion at a mosque inside the presidential palace came amid a 4-month-old uprising that has failed to dislodge the U.S. partner from his leadership post. It remains unclear who was responsible for the attack.
Saleh's departure after three decades of rule left a power vacuum in the capital city Sanaa and a fierce debate over whether he should be allowed to return to power. The president is reported to have reneged three times on promises to hand over leadership in a peaceful transition.
Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Wednesday said recent events have heightened the risk of terrorist attacks by the al-Qaeda franchise.
"It is incredibly dangerous and made more dangerous in the ongoing chaos," Mullen said at a press conference in Cairo, Egypt. "The downside of a much more chaotic and much more violent Yemen is not just bad for Yemen, it's bad for the region, it's bad for the world."
That said, "we are continuing to receive cooperation" from the Yemeni government, Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee. The CIA director called the latest events in Yemen "a scary and an uncertain situation," but added that "with regards to counterterrorism, we're still very much continuing our operations."
Panetta said classified details of U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Yemen could be discussed in a closed-door committee session held later on Thursday.
Attacks targeting the United States by AQAP operatives since the group's emergence in early 2009 have included Nigerian-born Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's attempt late that year to blow himself up on a commercial flight to Detroit, and a failed effort in October 2010 to mail explosives-rigged parcels on cargo planes bound for U.S. destinations.
At least one Yemeni native detained on suspicion of terrorist activity has said his cohorts were attempting to buy uranium and they might, in fact, have acquired some. Uranium could be used to in a nuclear weapon or, perhaps more likely, in a "dirty bomb" that spreads radioactive material in a conventional blast.
Al-Qaeda operatives have also shown interest in obtaining chemical and biological weapons. One high-profile detainee threatened that al-Qaeda would detonate a WMD device in the event that Osama bin Laden were captured or killed. U.S. commandos killed the al-Qaeda leader in a raid last month in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
The United States has repeatedly carried out counterterrorism attacks in Yemen using cruise missiles and drones, including an assault last month that targeted Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born cleric and a leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Al-Awlaki—who is said to have inspired a number of violent strikes against Western targets including the November 2009 shootings at Fort Bragg, Texas—reportedly survived without injury.
"AQAP is intensely focused on conducting a near-term attack against the United States, and poses an immediate terrorist threat to U.S. interests and the homeland," Panetta said in written responses to questions from the Senate committee. He said the group is "still actively plotting attacks."
The latest instability in Yemen has allowed the al-Qaeda offshoot to enlarge its area of operations, Panetta acknowledged.
"The ongoing unrest has weakened an already fragile economy and allowed AQAP to expand its influence and to make some tactical gains in the tribal areas—in several cases seizing and holding territory now outside of Republic of Yemen government control," the CIA chief wrote. "However, despite AQAP's limited gains, they remain distant from, and largely counter to, the current anti-government movement in Yemen."
Given ongoing chaos in Yemen, the Defense Department is "constantly evaluating our security assistance and capacity building programs" there, particularly those in which U.S. troops help train and equip Sanaa's forces for counterterrorism and stability operations, Panetta said.
Washington last year provided Yemen with $155 million of this type of security assistance—nearly half of all such U.S. aid offered internationally and the largest single country share, according to a Congressional Research Service report.
"The Republic of Yemen government currently remains a critical partner in the war against al-Qaeda, and DOD remains particularly mindful of the continued and growing threat to the homeland from AQAP," Panetta told the committee.
Yemen was among several nations—including Pakistan and Somalia—the Senate committee's chairman identified as being a particularly dangerous breeding ground for what could be the worst form of terror attack.
"The risk of a terrorist organization getting their hands on and detonating an improvised nuclear device or other weapon of mass destruction remains one of the gravest possible threats to the United States," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. He noted that the Defense Department was working with other U.S. agencies to "prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, fissile materials and dangerous technologies."