America’s a safer place thanks to recent Al Qaeda killings, says Defense Sec Leon Panetta

  • Pentagon chief speaks ahead of important trip to the Middle East
  • Also claims increased co-operation with Yemen will not diminish if President Ali Abdullah Saleh leaves power

The deaths of several Al Qaeda leaders in recent months will make it more difficult for the terror group and its associates to launch attacks abroad, America's top defence official has said.

U.S Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was speaking to reporters yesterday 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 defence ministers in Brussels.

In flight: U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta answers questions aboard an air force plane over the Atlantic Ocean.

In flight: U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta answers questions onboard an air force plane over the Atlantic Ocean.

His claims come 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 Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Killed with him was Samir Khan, a Pakistani-American who produced the group's English-language web magazine, Inspire.

However, it has been reported Al Qaeda's top bomb maker in Yemen did not die in the strike, dashing American hopes that the attack might have killed a trio of top terrorists.

Initial reprots suggested Ibrahim al-Asiri, was also killed in the attack that targeted al-Awlaki, but that was later denied by Yemeni authorities.

The strike came a few months after a special operations team raid into Pakistan which killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

'By virtue of eliminating that leadership, I think it makes it much more difficult for Al Qaeda to develop the kinds of plans and operations for conducting large attacks abroad,' Panetta said.

Dead: Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric linked to Al Qaeda in Yemen was killed recently by a CIA drone strike.
Killed: Osama bin Laden was killed by American special forces in Pakistan.

Killed: Anwar al-Awlaki, left, and Osama bin Laden have both died following attacks by the U.S.

U.S. counter-terrorism officials had considered AQAP a top terror threat because it had been more active in recent plots.

These include the failed attempt at Christmas 2009 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.

Panetta also said increased cooperation with Yemen against the Al Qaeda affiliate there will not diminish if President Ali Abdullah Saleh leaves power as the U.S. and others have urged.

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.

Protesters demand the resignation of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa, Yemen. Leon Panetta believes cooperation with the Yemen against Al Qaeda will not diminish if Saleh leaves power

Protesters demand the resignation of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Leon Panetta believes cooperation with the Yemen against Al Qaeda will not diminish if Saleh leaves power

And he said he believes anyone who takes Saleh's place will continue to be concerned about the terror network in Yemen and will cooperate with the U.S. in going after it.

Panetta's 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 January 25 to February 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 defence 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.


During his briefing to reporters, Leon Panetta also warned that Israel is becoming increasingly isolated in the Middle East.

The U.S Defense Secretary said Israeli leaders must restart negotiations with the Palestinians and work to restore relations with Egypt and Turkey.

In a blunt assessment, made as he was traveling to Israel, Panetta said the ongoing upheaval in the Middle East makes it critical for the Israelis to find ways to communicate with other nations in the region in order to have stability.

'There's not much question in my mind that they maintain that (military) edge,' Panetta told reporters traveling with him.

'But the question you have to ask: Is it enough to maintain a military edge if you're isolating yourself in the diplomatic arena?

'Real security can only be achieved by both a strong diplomatic effort as well as a strong effort to project your military strength.'

Panetta is scheduled to meet this week with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and then travel to a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels.

His visit comes as Middle East negotiators push for a peace deal by the end of next year, amping up pressure for the resumption of long-stalled talks.

The Pentagon chief said Israel risks eroding its own security if it does not reach out to its neighbours.

'It's pretty clear that at this dramatic time in the Middle East, when there have been so many changes, that it is not a good situation for Israel to become increasingly isolated. And that's what's happening,' he said.

His visit comes at a particularly critical and fragile time.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has asked the UN Security Council to recognize an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, areas captured by Israel in 1967.

The United States opposed the U.N. bid, saying there is no substitute for direct peace negotiations.

But with Israel continuing to build settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, Abbas says there is no point in talking.

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