By Adam Levine
Osama bin Laden continues to assert an "almost spiritual leadership," even after his death, according to U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in an interview with CBC over the weekend.
Materials seized from the Pakistan compound where bin Laden was found suggest bin Laden was pushing for further attacks on the United States and other countries, Panetta told Peter Mansbridge in an interview aired over the weekend on CBC's "Mansbridge One on One" and on CBC's newscast "The National."
U.S. pressure on al Qaeda in Pakistan makes it difficult for the organization to function effectively there, but the terror group has spread to other countries and continues to be a concern, Panetta said.
Here's an excerpt from the interview:
Panetta: I think there's no question he continues to assert that kind of almost spiritual leadership that he had, and people continued to refer to that. He continued to try to assert that and did. One of the things we found by going through the material at Abbottabad, the compound he had there, is that he was continuing to make efforts, continuing to work with his leadership to be able to conduct further attacks.
And so he was clearly committed to that goal, and the very fact that he was the individual that put together the 9/11 attack, I think made very clear that he was someone we absolutely had to go after, we had to get, and that the key to undermining al Qaeda and to undermining their effort to continue that effort was in large measure going to be getting rid of bin Laden.
Mansbridge: So his leadership was beyond spiritual. He still had direct connection through his people.
Panetta: Oh, yes. He was still working through couriers to get his message across. Matter of fact, it was the couriers that ultimately led us to the compound. But he was continuing to use them in order to be able to get his message out and in order to be able to communicate with the other leaders within al Qaeda.
Mansbridge: But was al Qaeda still, and is still now, a significant force at that time? Because we were getting used to being told that, you know, it's a spent force.
Panetta: There's no question that we have been very successful at going after their leadership, not only bin Laden but we've gone after a number of their other key leaders, and we made it very difficult for them to put any kind of command and control together or to put together the kind of plan that was involved in the attack on 9/11. Having said that, they continue to be a threat. Continue to be a threat not just in the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), in Pakistan. They continue to be a threat in Yemen and Somalia and in North Africa, and so for that reason we just can't stop continuing to put pressure on them to make sure that they never again have the opportunity to attack our country.
In the interview, Panetta also said there is also no evidence that Pakistani leadership had any direct connection to the al Qaeda leader, saying that the "bottom line is that we have not had evidence that provides that direct link."
The Pakistani government is currently debating how to formulate its ongoing relationship with the U.S. after a series of incidents that heightened anger and mistrust of America, including the bin Laden raid and a border strike by U.S. and NATO troops that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Various government officials and members of Parliament have called for a complete cessation of the drone program.
The U.S. has offered to adjust its drone program, Security Clearance's Pam Benson reported last week, which has continued even though other areas of cooperation between the two countries has ground to a halt.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would not comment on the offer when she was asked this weekend by CNN's Jill Dougherty but did say the U.S. would never handcuff its terror fighting in any agreement with another country.
"But I can assure you that the Obama administration will not enter into any agreement that would be to the detriment of the national security of our country," Clinton said in the CNN interview. "I think this president has demonstrated conclusively that he's ready to take the tough decisions when America's security is at stake."
Panetta told the CBC that the cooperation on fighting terrorism is essential not just for routing out al Qaeda but also for peace in neighbouring Afghanistan. Panetta said Pakistan has continued to conduct its own counterterrorism operations and there is progress in getting the relationship back on track.
"It's a complex relationship. We've been through our ups and downs. We're actually in a period now, after coming out of a couple of incidents, where I think they're interested and we're interested in trying to put this back on track" Panetta said in the interview. "And as a result of that actually I think we're making some progress, trying to re-open the blocks, the portals for our supplies. We're making some good progress with regards to cross-border operations. They are taking some steps to go after terrorists."
There have been recent high level meetings between the two countries, including President Barack Obama's meeting with Pakistan's president in Seoul in March, and top U.S. military officials who went to Islamabad for meetings for the first time since the border attack incident at the end of 2011.