NORMAN, Okla. —CIA Director Leon Panetta said Monday that the country's counterterrorism operations have placed al-Qaida's top leaders under extreme pressure, but recent thwarted terrorist plots in the U.S. indicate the terrorist 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.
"We are effectively conducting operations that disrupt the work of al-Qaida, that disrupt their command and control," he said.
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 not known to the CIA 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 terrorism charges.
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 people 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 to act 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.