By CNN Terrorism Analyst Paul Cruickshank
White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan warned of the dangers posed by al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen in speech at NYPD Headquarters in New York Friday, when he assessed the threat from al Qaeda one year after the death of Osama bin Laden.
He described the group – al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – which has taken advantage of a security vacuum in southern Yemen to expand its reach as “very, very dangerous.”
Brennan received a standing ovation from NYPD officers at the event for his role in the operation that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. He was presented with an NYPD jacket by New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.
One NYPD official asked him what it was like to be in the White House Situation Room that night. “There wasn’t a sense of exubarance, he said, “there were no high fives. People let out a breath. It was a moment of reflection. This was something we’d all worked toward for a long time.”
Brennan said that thinking about that day made him recall the first time he and President Obama were briefed in the Oval office about a CIA lead on the whereabouts of bin Laden. He said that over subsequent months U.S. intelligence officials tried to pull together all the threads and as the weeks progressed and “some of us became more confident that the person in that compound was bin Laden” there was a vigorous debate and a reviewing of the intelligence reporting to see if holes could be poked in it. When the President Obama made what Brennan called the “gutsy call” to authorize the mission, “the minutes passed like hours and days.”
Brennan recalled that when he left the White House at 130am after bin Laden had been killed he passed by Lafayette Park where many had gathered to celebrate the the mission and chant “USA, USA.”
Brennan said he was hit with a wave of emotion. “I had goose bumps,” he said. He said he thought a lot about bin Laden’s victims that night and took solace in the fact there would now be no more. He told NYPD officials that when he traveled with the President to the 9/11 Memorial in New York he was given a commemorative bracelet which he has not taken off since.
Despite degrading al Qaeda’s operations in Pakistan, Brennan said the United States could not afford to let down its guard against the terrorist network if it wanted to avoid “another devastating attack.”
Brennan said that the United States had degraded al Qaeda’s ability to train recruits in Pakistan’s tribal areas (FATA), and move operatives into and out of the area. And many of its top leaders had been “taken off the battlefield.”
But he estimated there were still several hundred al Qaeda members in the FATA, and another hundred in Afghanistan. “The core organization still exists. They are still trying to orchestrate attacks out of the FATA,” he said.
Brennan said the key challenge U.S. counter-terrorism now faced was the evolution of al Qaeda in other areas of the world.
“We are very concerned about AQAP,” he said, “it’s the most active operational franchise.”
Brennan estimated AQAP now had more than a thousand members in Yemen and said it had “close connections” to al Qaeda Core in Pakistan.
He said AQAP was involved in both an intense insurgency to try take control of territory and establish a safe haven in southern Yemen, but also focused on attacking Western interests in Yemen and the West itself, including the U.S. Homeland.
Brennan said that the United States was committed to partnering with the Yemeni government to reduce the threat, but stressed there was no short-term fix. “This will need several years of hard work,” he said.
Brennan also used the speech to highlight a growing terrorist threat emanating from Africa. He said that just like in Yemen, where Jihadists had at first been motivated primarily by local ambitions, Jihadist outfits across Africa had an increasingly international agenda.
Noting the formal merger between the Somali militant group al Shabaab and al Qaeda two months ago, Brennan said that elements of al Shabaab were commited to al Qaeda’s campaign of international terrorism. The group, he said, had a close relationship with AQAP. They conducted joint training, shared expertise, and fighters from both groups went back and forth across the Gulf of Aden.
He said given the numbers of Western militants who had travelled to Somalia, it was fortunate that they had not yet been sent back to launch terrorist attacks in the United States.
Brennan also expressed concern about al Qaeda’s north African affiliate – al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM.) He said it had established operations in a large stretch of northern Africa and the Sahel, including Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauretania, and Mali, where he said a coup had created challenges for counter-terrorism cooperation. He described AQIM as having “close connections to al Qaeda core.”
Brennan expressed particular frustration with the millions of dollars in ransom fees paid to the group by European governments whose nationals had been kidnapped by the group. He expressed concern that weapons stockpiles in Libya could fall into terrorist hands and said the United States was working strenuosly with Libyan authorities to prevent this happening.
Brennan described Nigerian militant group Boko Haram as having both a local agenda but also “associations with al Qaeda.” He said that a radical splinter group called Ansaru was particularly commited to transnational Jihad.
Brennan indicated that political unrest in the Arab world might provide al Qaeda new opportunities in the region and that U.S. security officials over the next “one, two, three years” would need to be very focused on preventing “a potential wave of terrorism that might evolve due to events in the area.”
He said terrorist groups including al Qaeda were gravitating towards lawless areas in Egypt’s Sinai, and the United States was working with the Egyptian government to try to bolster security in the area.
He also warned that the situation in Syria had the potential for exploitation by al Qaeda and other groups.
Turning his attention to Afghanistan, Brennan stated that after U.S. and NATO troops pulled out of Afghanistan, the United States would need to work together with Afghanistan and Pakistan so that the area was “never again used as a launch pad for attacks on U.S. citizens.” While acknowledging difficulties in the U.S. counter-terrorism partnership with Pakistan, which he called a “mixed-bag,” Brennan stressed that Pakistan had suffered even more deaths from terrorism than the United States, and had every interest to root out terrorist groups from its soil.
Addressing the terrorist threat to the U.S. Homeland, Brennan said that one of the most concerning scenarios was that of the lone terrorist actor. Such plots by their nature have been more difficult for authorities to intercept.
When asked about what trends concerned him over the next five to ten years, Brennan singled out the increasing sophistication of al Qaeda bomb design which he attributed in part to a generation of militants schooled in building bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq.
He said that while bomb detection equipment was improving, terrorists were continuosly attempting to find ways to build bombs with materials designed to defeat them, including by using non-metallic materials, and by hiding bombs on their person. He said terrorists were also increasingly finding ways to minituarize explosive devices.
“They spend a lot of time looking at our security practices, so they can evade them,” Brennan stated.
In AQAP’s past two attempted attacks against the United States, its chief bomb-designer Ibrahim al Asiri built explosive devices which got past airport security. In 2009 al Asiri built up a bomb which his brother inserted inside his rectum to gain access to Saudi Arabia’s counter-terrorism chief. The attack failed.