WASHINGTON — Earlier this week Attorney General John Ashcroft warned of an attack planned on America for sometime in the coming months. That may happen, but NBC News has learned one of Ashcroft’s sources is highly suspect.
In warning Americans to brace for a possible attack, Ashcroft cited what he called “credible intelligence from multiple sources,” saying that “just after New Year's, al-Qaida announced openly that preparations for an attack on the United States were 70 percent complete.… After the March 11 attack in Madrid, Spain, an al-Qaida spokesman announced that 90 percent of the arrangements for an attack in the United States were complete.”
But terrorism experts tell NBC News there's no evidence a credible al-Qaida spokesman ever said that, and the claims actually were made by a largely discredited group, Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, known for putting propaganda on the Internet.
“This particular group is not really taken seriously by Western intelligence,” said terrorism expert M.J. Gohel of the Asia-Pacific Foundation, an international policy assessment group. “It does not appear to have any real field operational capability. But it is certainly part of the global jihad movement — part of its propaganda wing, if you like. It likes to weave a web of lies; it likes to put out disinformation so that the truth is deeply buried. So it is a dangerous group in that sense, but it is not taken seriously in terms of its operational capability.”
The group has claimed responsibility for the power blackout in the Northeast last year, a power outage in London and the Madrid bombing. None of the claims was found to be credible.
“The only thing they haven't claimed credit for recently is the cicada invasion of Washington,” said expert Roger Cressey, former chief of staff of the critical infrastructure protection board at the White House and now an analyst for NBC News. Cressey also served as deputy to former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke.Video: Ashcroft, Mueller: Terror suspects
A senior U.S. intelligence official previously told NBC News that this group has no known operational capability and may be no more than one man with a fax machine.
Friday, Ashcroft's spokesman blamed the FBI, and the FBI admitted claims that terrorists were 90 percent ready to attack came not from al-Qaida, but from the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades’ statements.
That the FBI apparently took the group seriously also troubles experts.
“To give this group any type of credibility is reckless,” said terrorism expert and NBC analyst Steve Emerson, “because it simply doesn't represent anything but one person claiming credit for attacks that has no control or not connected to, but simply trying to jump on the publicity bandwagon.”
He believes it reflects a larger failing on the part of the FBI.
“Portraying this group seriously is simply a reflection of the FBI's continued failures since 9/11 to basically develop an analytic capability at headquarters in assessing terrorist intelligence,” Emerson said.
Senior intelligence and homeland security officials tell NBC News they were surprised by Ashcroft's claims and know of no credible intelligence that al-Qaida is 90 percent ready to attack. But all agree there is plenty of credible intelligence that al-Qaida has plans in the works, and they hope Ashcroft's use of questionable information doesn’t undermine public trust.
Ashcroft and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge issued an unusual joint statement Friday, assuring the American people that “we are working together" against terror. Some critics have suggested there's a disconnect, that the Justice Department did not collaborate with Homeland Security before issuing this week's terror warning.
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