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Al-Qaeda ‘Cancer’ Spreads With U.S. Chasing, Panetta Says

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta
Leon Panetta, U.S. defense secretary. Photographer: Rich Clement/Bloomberg

Al-Qaeda and affiliated terrorist groups have spread beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan and must be pursued by other countries with help from U.S. military commandos, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said.

“We have slowed the primary cancer -- but we know the cancer has also metastasized to other parts of the global body” despite American military gains against al-Qaeda in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen in the last decade, Panetta said in a speech yesterday in Washington.

The group and its surrogates have adapted “by becoming even more widely distributed, loosely knit and geographically dispersed” and are looking to establish themselves in a wide swath of North Africa, Panetta said.

The continuing fight against the terror group “will largely take place outside declared combat zones,” carried out by U.S. Special Operations Forces and through assistance to countries so they “can be effective in combating terrorism on their own,” Panetta said at an event organized by the Center for a New American Security, a policy research group in Washington.

Panetta described al-Qaeda links to the September 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that led to the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. He made no reference to criticism from Republicans of the Obama administration’s initial account of a spontaneous demonstration that was “hijacked” by “extremists” who weren’t further identified.

Libya Attack

“We are also concerned about Libya, where violent extremists and affiliates of al-Qaeda attacked and killed innocent Americans in Benghazi,” Panetta said yesterday. “With respect to that attack, let me be clear: we will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice those who perpetrated these attacks.”

Republicans such as Senator John McCain of Arizona have said the administration may have played down an al-Qaeda connection for political reasons during President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. Intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they shaped the original account to protect intelligence sources.

Panetta said “we are continuing to ramp up Special Operations Forces” even as the Pentagon’s budget comes under pressure because of budget deficits and debt and the military’s size is being cut back. The forces trained to conduct commando operations, such as the one that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, already have doubled in size from 37,000 on Sept. 11, 2011, to 64,000 today and “will grow to 72,000 by 2017,” he said.

The U.S. also is expanding its fleet of Predator surveillance drones and Reaper attack drones “over what we have today,” Panetta said.

Afghanistan Transition

Panetta said the U.S. and its NATO allies are on course to hand over security responsibilities in Afghanistan to Afghans after 2014, as Obama has pledged.

“This transition is our goal and it is the Afghans’ goal as well –- but it will require continued commitment by the international community and the United States to help Afghan forces achieve it,” Panetta said.

The U.S. won’t turn away from its efforts to prevent al-Qaeda from returning to Afghanistan, which he called the “historic epicenter for violent extremism.”

The U.S. also will continue to keep pressure on al-Qaeda in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, Panetta said. Acknowledging the difficulties in relations between the U.S. and Pakistan, Panetta said the national interests of both countries involve “defeating the terrorists on Pakistani soil.”

Panetta praised Michele Flournoy, his former under secretary for policy, who was co-founder of the Center for a New American Security. She has been among those cited as a potential successor to Panetta in Obama’s second term.

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