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Leon Panetta: Al Qaeda Weakened but Branching Out

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned on Tuesday that while the U.S. has been successful in slowing the growth of its number one enemy, al Qaeda, the terrorist group has still managed to extend its influence to other parts of the world.

In a speech to the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C., Panetta maintained that the U.S. has done well militarily against al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. However, militant leaders have adapted over the past decade, he said, “by becoming even more widely distributed, loosely knit and geographically dispersed.”

One of the regions where al Qaeda hopes to gain a foothold is Northern Africa, Panetta cautioned.  Already, there have been signs of its growing presence in Libya where a terrorist assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi resulted in the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans last September.

Without mentioning the criticism from Republicans who allege that news after the siege was altered to protect President Obama’s reelection bid, Panetta did acknowledge that “violent extremists and affiliates of al-Qaeda attacked and killed innocent Americans in Benghazi.”

The defense chief went on to say, “With respect to that attack, let me be clear: we will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice those who perpetrated these attacks.”

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