Osama bin Laden is isolated from the day-to-day operations of al-Qaida but the terrorist organization he built is spreading its influence in Africa and the Middle East, CIA director Michael Hayden said Thursday.
Al-Qaida remains the single greatest threat to the United States, Hayden said in remarks prepared for delivery at the Atlantic Council.
"If there is a major strike on this country, it will bear the fingerprints of al-Qaida," the CIA director said.
But Hayden said that bin Laden, hiding in the lawless tribal border area of Pakistan, "appears to be largely isolated from the day-to-day operations of the organization he leads."
The hunt for bin Laden remains at the top of the CIA's priority list.
"His death or capture clearly would have a significant impact on the confidence of his followers-both core al-Qaida and unaffiliated extremists throughout the world," Hayden said.
Al-Qaida-affiliated groups in the Philippines and Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Iraq have been degraded, but al-Qaida cells are surfacing elsewhere, Hayden said.
'Engaging Somali extremists'
"In East Africa, al-Qaida is engaging Somali extremists to revitalize operations," Hayden said. "The recent bombings in Somalia may have been meant, at least in part, to strengthen bona fides with al-Qaida's senior leaders. A merger between al-Shabaab and al-Qaida could give Somali extremists much-needed funding, while al-Qaida could claim to be reestablishing its operations base in East Africa."
Recent attacks of Algerian-based al-Qaida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb are bigger and more deadly than at any time since the group merged with al-Qaida two years ago, he said.
Al-Qaida is also strengthening in Yemen with an "unprecedented number of attacks" in 2008 and is likely to be a launching pad for attacks against Saudi Arabia.
Additionally, Al-Qaida's safe harbor in Pakistan's has allowed it to train a "bench of skilled operatives" that can carry out attacks when other cells are disrupted, he said.
Iraq also remains a terrorist staging ground. Al-Qaida fighters honed in the Iraq war but now leaving for other countries pose a continuing concern, Hayden warned.