CIA planning for al-Qaida "succession crisis"

May 27, 2008 10:13:51 AM PDT
The U.S. is making "a big and continual push" to capture or kill al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, but his demise won't end the organization's menace, CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden said Tuesday in an Associated Press interview. The CIA is equally interested in those jockeying to replace bin Laden in what he predicted will be a "succession crisis."

"It will be really interesting to see how that plays out. The organization is a lot more networked than it is ruthlessly hierarchical," Hayden said of the group behind the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. "How do you pick the next overall leader?"

A number of Egyptians are now part of al-Qaida's top echelon and may struggle for power among themselves. Bin Laden's current No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is an Egyptian.

Despite al-Qaida's resilience, taking out bin Laden would be a psychological blow to the organization, Hayden said.

"If there ever was a sense of invulnerability I think killing or capturing him would shatter it once and for all," he said.

Bin Laden is believed to be hiding in the lawless tribal areas of western Pakistan. The new Pakistani government is negotiating a new peace agreement with the tribes that would have them expel extremists and police the region on their own. Hayden said he believes the result will be similar to the last agreement Pakistan struck with the tribes - nothing is likely to change.

"Any peace agreement that does not move the effective writ of the Pakistani government into the tribal region and push the rule of law there gives these groups the opportunity to continue to train, refit and move across the Afghan border. It's something we certainly could not look kindly on," Hayden said in the telephone interview.

The CIA has been using armed drones to attack alleged terrorists inside the tribal area, as U.S. military forces are barred from pursuing al-Qaida and Taliban fighters across the Afghan border. Hayden would not say what else the CIA is doing, if anything, to target terrorist enclaves there.

"It's hard for me to get into any details. I understand the situation there and I'm comfortable with the authorities we've been given," he said.

"There's an awful lot of senior leadership killed or captured including even in the last several months," he said.