WASHINGTON — The United States has intercepted a message believed to be from fugitive al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, instructing the leader of the Iraqi insurgency to expand his operations and begin attacking U.S. targets outside Iraq, intelligence officials told NBC News on Monday.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the message was obtained within the past several weeks and prompted the Department of Homeland Security to send a bulletin to state and local law enforcement agencies.
The officials refused to reveal exactly how the message from bin Laden to al-Zarqawi was intercepted.
Message described as ‘quite vague’
A U.S. official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the message was “quite vague” and did not instruct al-Zarqawi to carry out attacks inside the United States. Instead, it discussed the need to begin planning operations “outside Iraq,” the official said.
The Homeland Security bulletin did not mention the specifics of the intercepted message, but restated al-Qaida’s interest in attacking targets inside the United States, the officials said.
Homeland Security spokesman Brian Roehrkasse confirmed Monday that the department had sent out a classified intelligence bulletin to state homeland security advisers over the weekend to give details of “recent credible but nonspecific” threat information.
“This nonspecific information reiterates al-Qaida’s desire to potentially target the homeland,” Roehrkasse said.
He said the information was still being analyzed by the intelligence community but it was not enough to lead to any increase in the terrorism alert level.
“Based on this information, the Department of Homeland Security has no plans to raise the threat level,” he said.
Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant, is a leading figure among Islamic insurgents who are waging a deadly campaign against U.S.-led forces in Iraq.
Warning from Goss
CIA Director Porter Goss warned the Senate intelligence committee this month that the insurgency posed an emerging international terrorism threat and said Zarqawi was trying to establish a safe haven in Iraq from which to operate against Western nations and “apostate” Muslim governments.
“The interesting thing here is bin Laden reaching out to leverage additional resources wherever he can find them to fulfill his goal of striking the homeland,” a counterterrorism official said Monday.
NBC News' Pete Williams and Reuters contributed to this report.