(WASHINGTON) -- Former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff says the idea that al Qaeda has been “eliminated” is “overly optimistic.” As U.S. embassies across the Middle East and North Africa remain shuttered following intelligence of possible terrorist attacks, Chertoff tells ABC News that the most pressing threat seems to be posed by Yemen, which he says has the most active al Qaeda-affiliated network.
“Although they're looking at a broad geographic area as potentially a target that most of this really is centered on Yemen,” Chertoff says, when asked about the State Department’s recent evacuation of all non-emergency staff from that country.
“Not surprisingly, the core al Qaeda, while it may be concerned for its safety, is still functioning,” Chertoff says. “We saw that with some of what emerged when [Osama] bin Laden was killed and they took some of that material out of Abbottabad [Pakistan]. We may have forced them to disperse but I still think the network continues to operate.”
Al Qaeda has strengthened in recent weeks, Chertoff says, because of a series of successful prison breaks that have allowed the terrorist network to “replenish their ranks” and boost morale.
“We’re talking about battle-hardened terrorists who are now out and about, and presumably joining their old comrades,” he says. “So they have managed to do two things. First, they've managed to replenish their ranks. Second, they've sent a message to other terrorists that if they get captured they're going to get released someday.”
The nearly 2,000 al Qaeda-affiliated militants estimated to have escaped during the recent prison breaks in Iraq, Pakistan and Libya could now fill a variety of roles for al Qaeda, Chertoff says.
“It's possible they could be suicide bombers," he says. "It's possible they could become combatants; some of them may have capabilities in terms of bomb making, which is always a concern. Some of them may have picked up information while they were in captivity that's useful intelligence for the terrorists, themselves.”
The threat of future prison breaks, Chertoff says, is also one of the reasons the U.S. government finds it “difficult to close Guantanamo.”
“Guantanamo a place that is not going to be subject to a jail release, and so there's a natural reluctance to send hardened terrorists back to other parts of the world where they then could ultimately be freed by prison breaks,” he says.
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