SAN'A, Yemen - The president of Yemen on Thursday warned that the al-Qaeda branch in the country was expanding and using assassinations and abductions of foreigners as a way to challenge the central authority.

President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi issued his warning during a closed session of the National Dialogue, which brings political, religious, and other leaders together to decide on the country's political system before writing a constitution.

The official SABA news agency said Hadi held an "exceptional" meeting, but offered few details on the president's remarks about security in the county. However, three people at the session agreed to relay his comments to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the private nature of the meeting.

They said Hadi told the participants that Yemen was at a crossroads, and pointed to a "very precarious" security situation. One described Hadi's remarks as unusually frank.

The National Dialogue is part of a transfer of power deal that led to the ouster of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh after a yearlong mass uprising. During the turmoil, militant groups affiliated with al-Qaeda took advantage of the military's preoccupation with the political unrest and took control of large areas in the country's south.

According to the participants, Hadi said that although his government has been going after al-Qaeda militants around the country, dealing them some setbacks, "the group is recuperating" and sleeper cells are waiting for the right time to carry out terrorist operations. One of the participants said Hadi told them that he was speaking "honestly" and that the security grip on the country was not as good as it should be.

Hadi's comments came on the same day that suspected al-Qaeda militants killed an intelligence officer in southern Lahj province.