By Tabassum Zakaria
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Striking the United States remains a "significant goal" for al Qaeda and its affiliates nearly a decade after the September 11 attacks, the president's nominee to head the National Counterterrorism Center said on Tuesday.
The killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was a "significant milestone" and "substantial progress" has been made against al Qaeda, but the group still poses a top terrorism threat to the Unites States, Matthew Olsen said at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
"That threat is not so much from the senior (al Qaeda) leadership in Pakistan with one unified goal, it is now diffused in various regional locations under various leaders and with various goals," he said.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which operates in Yemen and claimed responsibility for a December 25, 2009 attempt to bomb a U.S.-bound passenger plane, "has shown a willingness and a level of capability to strike in the United States," Olsen said.
Al Qaeda's affiliate in Somalia also has shown a willingness and ability to strike outside that country, he said.
If confirmed by the Senate, Olsen will become director of an agency created in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks as the hub for analyzing and sharing terrorist threat information.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the intelligence committee, expressed concern that the period before the tenth anniversary of the attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, was one of "heightened threat."
The State Department on Tuesday issued an updated "Worldwide Caution" warning of "an enhanced potential for anti-American violence" after bin Laden's death.
"Current information suggests that al Qaeda and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks against U.S. interests in multiple regions, including Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East," the State Department said.
"These attacks may employ a wide variety of tactics including suicide operations, assassinations, kidnappings, hijackings, and bombings."
Olsen, general counsel of the National Security Agency, was nominated by President Barack Obama to replace NCTC head Michael Leiter, who resigned.
But it was Olsen's previous role as head of the Guantanamo Review Task Force which drew criticism from Republicans on the intelligence panel.
The task force conducted a review of what to do with the detainees after Obama issued an order to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Senator Saxby Chambliss, intelligence committee vice chairman, said he was disturbed that detainees were transferred to Yemen and some may have re-engaged against the United States, and that the practice only stopped after AQAP's failed Christmas Day attack.
(Reporting by Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by Paul Simao)