ON BOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Monday that the deaths of several top al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan and Yemen in recent months will make it much more difficult for the terror group and its affiliates to plan and launch large-scale attacks abroad, including against the United States.
Panetta said increased cooperation with Yemen against the al-Qaida affiliate there will not diminish if President Ali Abdullah Saleh leaves power as the U.S. and others have urged.
The Pentagon chief spoke to reporters as he was heading to the Middle East, where he is scheduled to meet with top Israeli and Palestinian leaders. After that he will participate in a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels.
Panetta spoke just days after a CIA drone strike killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-Yemeni cleric who served as key inspirational leader within the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Killed with him was Samir Khan, a Pakistani-American who produced the group's English-language Web magazine, Inspire. The strike came a few months after a special operations team raid into Pakistan killed Osama bin Laden.
"By virtue of eliminating that leadership, I think it makes it much more difficult for al-Qaida to develop the kinds of plans and operations for conducting large attacks abroad," said Panetta.
He added that he does not know if AQAP's top bombmaker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, was also killed in the strike that targeted al-Awlaki. Officials initially heard al-Asiri may have been killed, but that was later denied by Yemeni authorities.
U.S. counterterrorism officials had considered AQAP a top terror threat because it had been more active in recent plots, including the failed Christmas 2009 attempt to blow up a jetliner headed to Detroit and the effort last year to plant explosives in packages mailed from Yemen to the U.S. and shipped on cargo planes.
The CIA strike came shortly after Saleh returned to Yemen after recovering from severe injuries he received during an attack in Sana'a earlier this year. The impoverished nation has been rocked by more than seven months of protests demanding an end to Saleh's 33-year authoritarian rule. The U.S. has urged Saleh to step down and allow a peaceful government transition.
On Sunday, Panetta said the U.S. has developed a relationship with a number of people in the country's leadership. And he said he believes anyone who takes Saleh's place will continue to be concerned about the terror network there and will cooperate with the U.S. in going after it.
In other comments, Panetta said his travels this week will also take him to Egypt where he will meet with leaders to reaffirm U.S. commitment to the region and urge them to put their election process in place.
He plans to meet with Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi , Egypt's military ruler. Tantawi and some two dozen generals who sit on the now-ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took control of the country from President Hosni Mubarak when he stepped down. They pledged to return to the country to civilian rule after a transition period.
They have since been criticized by the youth groups behind the Jan. 25 to Feb. 11 anti-government uprising for not doing enough to dismantle Mubarak's 29-year rule. Activists also accuse the generals of dragging their feet in bringing members of the Mubarak regime to justice and of running the country in secrecy
Panetta will also attend NATO's defense ministerial, where the members will get an update of the military mission in Libya, which is winding down. The ministers will also hear from the top U.S. commander heading the Afghan war and hear how the transition to Afghan forces is going.
Another key topic, Panetta said, will be the budget constrictions that all of the nations are now going through.
"It's very important now, as we face those budget constraints, to try to develop approaches that allow us to share capabilities, and allow us to share technologies, and allow us to work together closely in order to ensure that NATO can fulfill its role of providing security," Panetta said.