White House draws up hit list to cripple al-Qaida
The United States is seeking to pick off up to 20 top commanders of al-Qaida and its affiliates around the world, hoping to cripple the organisation's ability to launch terrorist attacks against US interests.
The decapitation of al-Qaida has become a vital priority for President Barack Obama.
The killing of Osama bin Laden will be touted as one of his foreign policy achievements when he seeks re-election next year.
If he could assert that al-Qaida itself had been essentially extinguished that would be more potent still.
The existence of the longer hit list was revealed by the new US Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, during a weekend visit to Afghanistan.
Mr Panetta (73), who moved to the Pentagon after serving as director of the CIA, said the US was seeking to take 10 to 20 leaders of the network in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and north Africa. He did not say if the goal was to capture or kill.
“We made an important start with getting rid of bin Laden,” Mr Panetta said in Kabul.
“I was convinced in my prior capacity and I'm convinced in this capacity we're within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaida.
“Now is the moment to put maximum pressure on them, because I do believe that if we continue this effort we can really cripple al-Qaida.”
Among those now being targeted, he said, were Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian who replaced bin Laden as leader and who is thought to be in hiding in Pakistan, and Anwar al-Awlaki, the US-born radical cleric.
The message was reinforced by General David Petraeus, the Nato commander in Afghanistan, who later this summer will return to Washington to occupy Mr Panetta's old office at the CIA.
He separately told reporters that enormous headway had been made in crippling al-Qaida in Afghanistan.
It was because of the terror network's presence in the country that the post-9/11 invasion was ordered in the first place.
Mr Panetta and General Petraeus were both seeking to bolster a newly optimistic narrative from Washington that is designed to make it easier for Mr Obama to execute his plan to bring home 33,000 troops from the country before the election, including 10,000 this year.
Mr Panetta endorsed America's intention to eventually hand over responsibility for security in the country.
“The key to success in Afghanistan is the ability to successfully transition to the Afghans,” he said.
The new leader of al-Qaida after the killing of Osama bin Laden by US forces in Pakistan, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has vowed to pursue the ‘holy war’ against Israel and the US. The Egyptian is said to have trained militants in at least four nations. He is wanted for his alleged role in the 1998 African embassy bombings.