CIA Director Leon Panetta said Monday the country's counterterrorism operations have placed al-Qaida's top leaders under extreme pressure and many are "on the run" but recent thwarted terror plots in the U.S. indicate the terror network is changing its tactics.
"We are a nation at war with al-Qaida and its associates. And that war is persistent," Panetta said during a foreign policy conference at the University of Oklahoma. "They remain determined to kill as many Americans as possible."
Counterterrorism operations directed at al-Qaida in recent months have led to the deaths of more than half of the terrorist group's top 20 leaders, Panetta said. Many of the operations were conducted in tribal areas of Pakistan that were once considered an al-Qaida safe haven, he said.
"Our counterterrorism operations have put senior al-Qaida leaders under intense pressure," Panetta said. "We are effectively conducting operations that disrupt the work of al-Qaida, that disrupt their command and control.
"But this is also a war. And they will keep coming at us any way we can."
Panetta said there is growing evidence that al-Qaida is changing its tactics by deploying people to the U.S. who have no history of terrorist activity or documented connection to the organization.
Panetta said four people who the CIA did not know were arrested in the U.S. last year including admitted al-Qaida associate Najibullah Zazi, a Colorado airport van driver who pleaded guilty last month to terror charges. Zazi admitted that he tested bomb-making materials in a Denver suburb before traveling by car to New York intending to attack the subway system to avenge U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan.
"My worry is there are others that have been deployed here that we don't know about," Panetta said.
Al-Qaida is also turning to individuals who are not trained terrorists and have no history of terrorism including the Nigerian man accused in the failed Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner. Panetta said individuals with no documented link to terrorist activity are "much more difficult to try to pin down."
He said another new form of terrorist threat is the "lone wolf" who becomes self-radicalized and decides on his own to take violent action without al-Qaida taking a direct role. Panetta cited the case of Maj. Nidal Hasan, an Army psychiatrist who is charged with killing 13 people in the Nov. 5 shooting spree at Fort Hood.
"We constantly have to adjust our tactics and capabilities in this fight," Panetta said.
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