09/06/2011 02:44 pm ET Updated Nov 06, 2011

U.S. may seek access to al Qaeda suspect in Pakistan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The United States will likely seek access to question a senior member of al Qaeda arrested in Pakistan, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Tuesday, as he cheered U.S.-Pakistani cooperation in capturing him.

The arrest of Younis al-Mauritani in the southwestern city of Quetta, announced by Pakistan on Monday, dealt a fresh blow to the Islamist militant group just two weeks after the death of al Qaeda's No. 2 in an apparent drone strike.

It was also a sign that the United States and Pakistan were starting to put behind them the bitterness caused by the unilateral raid by U.S. forces who killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on May 2.

Asked whether the United States would seek access to Mauritani, who is in Pakistani custody, Panetta said: "I assume that we will work with the Pakistanis to try to obtain access and try to gather intelligence from that individual."

Panetta said the operation was particularly encouraging because Mauritani "was someone we thought was a real threat in terms of our security."

The Pakistani army has said bin Laden had personally told Mauritani to focus on targets of economic importance in the United States, Europe and Australia.

Panetta was speaking to reporters in New York City after touring the memorial to victims of the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, ahead of the memorial's formal unveiling on Sunday.

Asked about the chances of another September 11-style attack, "I don't think we can take anything for granted."

"The potential for that kind of attack remains very real and for that reason we have to continue to be vigilant. We have to do everything necessary to make sure it doesn't happen," Panetta told reporters traveling with him.

Panetta, before taking over as defense secretary on July 1, was CIA director during the covert May raid in Pakistan by Navy SEALs that killed Osama bin Laden.

As defense secretary, Panetta has also said the strategic defeat of al Qaeda is within reach if the United States can kill or capture up to 20 remaining leaders of the core group and its affiliates.

U.S. officials say al Qaeda's new No. 2 was killed on August 22, in a major blow to the organization. The latest capture was another encouraging sign, Panetta said.

"We have to continue to (put) pressure on al Qaeda. But there is no question that as we celebrate the tenth anniversary of 9/11 that we have made significant progress in weakening al Qaeda," Panetta said.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)