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Al-Qaida Remains No. 1 Threat to United States, Official Says

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 1, 2009 – The al-Qaida terrorist network and its affiliate members continue to pose the greatest danger to the United States and its allies, a senior U.S. State Department official said here yesterday.

Ronald Schlicher, acting coordinator for the State Department’s counterterrorism directorate, shared with reporters at a news conference some highlights of his agency’s just-released reports that examine events in 2008.

The annual compilation of terrorist activity gathered from around the world, Schlicher said, provides “a very good idea of the challenges we face in the counterterrorism field, of the progress we’ve made, and of the problems that still need to be addressed effectively.”

Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Schlicher said, al-Qaida has moved its base of operations eastward from Afghanistan into remote areas of Pakistan’s northwest frontier. Today, al-Qaida is using the mountainous terrain in Pakistan’s federally administered tribal areas “as a safe haven,” he said, “where they can hide, where they can train, where they can communicate with their followers, where they can plan attacks and where they can make plans to send their fighters to support the insurgency in Afghanistan.”

The tribal areas now provides al-Qaida “with many of the benefits that it once derived from the base that it had across the border in Afghanistan,” Schlicher said.

During his April 29 news conference, President Barack Obama said he is “gravely concerned” about the situation in Pakistan.

However, the Pakistani military is continuing its offensive against militants who have taken up residence in Pakistan’s Swat Valley and were threatening Islamabad, the country’s capital city.

“You’re starting to see the Pakistani military take much more seriously the armed threat from militant extremists,” Obama said during the news conference.

Turning to Iraq, Schlicher observed that although al-Qaida terrorists residing there remain dangerous, the group has lost influence and experienced “significant” defections.

Al-Qaida in Iraq has “lost key mobilization areas,” Schlicher continued, noting the terrorist group suffers from “disruption of support, infrastructure and funding.” The deteriorating state of affairs, he added, has forced al-Qaida in Iraq “to change its targeting priorities in some instances.” Also, the numbers of al-Qaida bombings in Iraq “fell significantly” in 2008, Schlicher pointed out.

“And, very importantly, tribal and local leaders in Iraq continue to encourage Sunni tribes and local citizens to reject al-Qaida and to reject its ideology,” Schlicher said.

However, Somalia now appears to be emerging as a new terrorist “hot spot,” Schlicher said. The al-Shabab terrorist group in Somalia has ties to al-Qaida, he said, noting these terrorists have “overrun” the southern and central parts of the country.

“And Somalia’s newly-established unity government remains in need of more substantial international support to face this and other challenges,” Schlicher added.

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