Take out these al-Qa'ida leaders and terror group is finished, says Panetta

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The Independent US

The United States is seeking to pick off up to 20 top commanders of al-Qa'ida and its affiliates around the world, hoping to cripple the organisation's ability to launch terrorist attacks against US interests.

The decapitation of al-Qa'ida has become a vital priority for President Barack Obama. The killing of Osama bin Laden will be touted as one of his signal foreign policy achievements when he seeks re-election next year. If he could assert that al-Qa'ida 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 visit to Afghanistan this weekend. 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-Qa'ida. 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-Qa'ida as a threat to this country."

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 who has become a leading terror figure in Yemen with the group al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula.

The message was underscored 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 has been made in crippling al-Qa'ida 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.

General Petraeus estimated that only about 50 to 100 al-Qa'ida militants remained in the eastern mountains of the country. "We assess that we have killed their Number 2 and 3 (in Afghanistan) over the course of the past six to eight months, and we have put enormous pressure on other leaders who are either part of it or affiliated."

He conceded that the US might not be able to entirely wipe out al-Qa'ida, but he insisted that neutering it was a viable ambition. "There may be elements of al-Qa'ida out there for some time, the 'brand' so to speak, but they will not be able to plan and execute strategic attacks," he said.

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 underscored America's intention to hand off responsibility for security in the country. "The key to success in Afghanistan is the ability to successfully transition to the Afghans," he said.

AYMAN AL-ZAWAHI, bounty: $25m

The new leader of al-Qa'ida after the killing of Osama bin Laden by US forces in Pakistan. He has vowed to pursue the "holy war" against Israel and the US.

ANWAR AL-AWLAKI, bounty: unknown

The US considers the al-Qa'ida affiliate in Yemen, the dangerous and American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the most charismatic leader since Bin Laden.

AB YAHYA AL-LIBI, bounty: $5m

The charismatic Libyan Islamic scholar has risen rapidly through the ranks of the terrorist organisation. Dramatically escaped from Bagram prison in 2005.

SAIF AL-ADEL, bounty: $5m

The Egyptian is said to have trainedmilitants in at least four nations. Wanted for his alleged role in the 1998 African embassy bombings.

ADNAN G EL SHUKRIJUMAH, bounty: $5m

The alleged senior al-Qa'ida planner has been accused in the US of involvement in a plot to bomb the New York subway system, which was uncovered in 2009.

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