NEW YORK, March 30: Al Qaeda is training western-looking operatives in tribal areas of Pakistan, making it easier for them to get past security at US airports, according to CIA Director Michael Hayden.

Talking on NBC’s news programme ‘Meet the Press’, Mr Hayden said the most likely point of origin from where terrorists would launch another attack against the US was the sanctuary in tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.

He said that the intelligence agency believed Osama bin Laden was in the border region, between Pakistan and Afghanistan, but he was “not operationally involved”.

He “is more of an iconic figure” for the global terrorist movement, Mr Hayden said, adding that killing or capturing him and deputy commander Ayman Al Zawahiri remained a “high priority for the CIA”.

Mr Hayden said that they (Al Qaeda) were training “operatives who look western” and “would be able to come into this country without attracting the attention others might … If there is another terrorist attack, it will originate there.’’

He declined to comment on a Washington Post report that the US had intensified its unilateral air strikes against Al Qaeda targets in the area over fears the country’s new leaders would scale back such operations.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani on Saturday stressed political rather than military steps to combat a spreading insurgency by radical elements in the border area.

The US is concerned that a softened approach might let Al Qaeda, the Taliban and other groups expand their base in Pakistan and step up attacks on US forces in Afghanistan.

The Bush administration also is concerned about the political sidelining of President Pervez Musharraf, its longtime ally in Pakistan.

While the previous Musharraf-led military government signed peace deals with the tribal leaders in 2006 — a strategy the CIA chief called ‘absolutely disastrous’ since it allowed Al Qaeda to regroup — the government also periodically conducted military strikes and permitted US missile strikes on suspected Al Qaeda targets.

“We have not had a better partner in the war against terrorism than Pakistan” under Musharraf, Mr Hayden said in the NBC interview. When asked if President Musharraf would “still be there” in three months, Hayden said: “I don’t know.”