Defense and military officials testified that al Qaeda is gaining a foothold in several areas throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa in a hearing before a subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday afternoon.
The terrorist organization is seeking to exploit the upheaval in the Middle East following uprisings over the past two years that overthrew many longstanding governments across the region, testified Derek Chollet, assistant secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs.
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Chollet also said the administration is worried about the possibility that al Qaeda could establish strongholds in multiple countries, including Syria and Mali.
When pressed by Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), Michael Sheehan, assistant secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict and Interdependent Capabilities, said al Qaeda affiliates are gaining strength in Syria.
Sheehan and McCain differed in their respective assessments of al Qaeda’s capacity in Libya during an acrimonious exchange.
Sheehan asserted al Qaeda has "failed to demonstrate strategic capability in those new areas" such as Libya that are outside of their traditional strongholds.
"I just came from Libya, Mr. Sheehan," McCain said. "I just came from there. That is patently false. That is a false statement."
Al Qaeda remains strong in the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as in Yemen, Sheehan said. He argued that the military has had great success in targeting and eliminating the terrorist organization’s leadership.
When asked by McCain, Sheehan refused to answer whether he would support arming the Syrian opposition, saying he would rather discuss that issue in the closed session that immediately followed the open hearing.
"The American people should not know how the members of our Department of Defense feel about an issue of the slaughter of 70,000 or more people, millions of refugees?" McCain asked in response.
Chollet testified that the U.S. government is supplying the Syrian opposition with "non-lethal" support. He also said al Qaeda is losing the "hearts and minds" of the Syrian people.
Sen. Deb Fischer (R., Neb.) expressed concern that the American military is spread too thinly across the globe, a concern that Adm. William McRaven, commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, rejected.
"I’m not sure that I think we’re spread to thin," McRaven said, noting that on any given day the United States has special operations forces in 70 to 90 countries.
Sheehan said United Nations forces, which will likely replace the French forces currently in Mali, will not be able to take on the al Qaeda affiliate there and root it out.
That will be a job for other, better equipped forces, like French forces with U.S. support, Sheehan said.
McCain returned to the issue of America’s policy toward Syria at the end of the hearing.
"The reality on the ground is that arms and people are flowing freely all across North Africa, and many of them are coming in to Syria," he said.
"The situation continues to become more radicalized in Syria as 80,000 more people have been massacred while we sit by and watch and figure out reasons why we can’t intervene," McCain said.