Is Libya an 'arms bazaar' for terrorists?

Counterterrorism chief John Brennan says it is now much harder for Al Qaeda to carry out an attack in the US. But he's keeping an eye on Libya's weapons stockpiles.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, spoke at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast in Washington D.C., on Thursday, Sept. 8.

Al Qaeda may be down but it is not out, according to President Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, and keeping Libya’s exposed cache of weapons out of the terrorist organization’s hands is just the latest focus of the nation’s counterterror effort.

“We have indications that individuals of various stripes are looking to Libya and seeing it as an arms bazaar,” said John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, at a Monitor breakfast Thursday. “We are concerned about the potential for certain weapons to get into the hands of terrorists.”

The White House counterterrorism chief’s attention to Libya and the potential vulnerability of its chemical and biological weapons comes amid reports that the fugitive Libyan leader, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, may be planning a last stand from his remaining strongholds, where he could deploy deadly gases against rebel forces.

Colonel Qaddafi is known to have accumulated a large stockpile of mustard gas, and recently seized documents suggest that the regime in its final hours last month shipped large numbers of gas masks and chemical-protection suits to Qaddafi’s bases of support.

The need for vigilance over Libya’s weapons stockpiles was just one focus of Mr. Brennan’s wide-ranging discussion with reporters to mark this week’s 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Much of the weekend’s commemorations will appropriately center on remembering the attacks’ victims, he said, but he added that Americans should also reflect on the progress the nation has made in thwarting those bent on harming it.

This is “a time for the American people to feel proud about what has been accomplished in the last decade,” he said. “It is much more difficult now for Al Qaeda to carry out an attack here.”

Still, Brennan’s focus on the advances the US has made in counterterrorism and in homeland security since 9/11 appeared aimed at least in part at countering signs of the American public’s creeping inattention to a continuing terrorist threat. Already evidence from some polls suggest that Americans have higher pressing priorities, which could lead to pressure for cuts in counterterrorism and security spending.

Every day the US is “stronger and better prepared” to address threats, he said, but “that doesn’t mean the terrorists can't find seams” for getting through and mounting another attack.

In other highlights, the White House counterterrorism chief:

  • Praised Pakistan for its recent intelligence cooperation with the US, citing the counterterrorism relationship as a contributing factor in the killing in Pakistan last month of Al Qaeda’s second-in-command, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman.
  • Cautioned that the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is taking advantage of Yemen’s continuing political instability, holding on to territory and transitioning into the role of a full-blown insurgency.
  • Cited Saudi Arabia as a leading example of a broader international “sea change” since the 9/11 attacks in many countries’ perception of and attention to terrorism.
  • Insisted that closing the Guantánamo detention facility remains the goal of the Obama administration despite numerous “congressional roadblocks” that have slowed the effort.

Brennan also said the trove of materials seized in the raid of Osama bin Baden’s compound in Pakistan revealed that the Al Qaeda leader was still bent on attacking the US. Some documents suggest Mr. bin Laden was having trouble accepting that mounting a successful attack had become more difficult.

“He was a little out of touch with just how debilitated his organization was,” Brennan said. “His lieutenants were trying to tell him that.”

If the materials seized at the Abbottabad compound held any surprises, he added, it was – contrary to what was “assumed all around” – that Pakistan did not have any “complicity” in bin Laden’s ability to maintain a refuge in the country.

“I have not seen anything to suggest the Pakistanis were aiding his refuge in Abbottabad,” he said. If there was any official complicity, he added, “I haven’t seen it.”

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