Al-Qaida is using its growing strength in Pakistan and Iraq to plot attacks on U.S. soil, heightening the terror threat facing the United States over the next few years, intelligence agencies concluded in a report unveiled Tuesday.
At the same time, the intelligence analysts worry that international cooperation against terrorism will be hard to sustain as memories of Sept. 11 fade and nations’ views diverge on what the real threat is.
In the report prepared for President Bush and other top policymakers, analysts laid out a range of dangers — from al-Qaida to Lebanese Hezbollah to non-Muslim radical groups — that pose a “persistent and evolving threat” to the country over the next three years.
The findings focused most heavily on Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network, which was judged to remain the most serious threat to the United States. The group’s affiliate in Iraq, which has not yet posed a direct threat to U.S. soil, could do just that, the report concluded. Al-Qaida in Iraq threatened to attack the United States in a Web statement last September.
The Iraqi affiliate also helps al-Qaida more broadly as it tries to energize Sunni Muslim extremists around the globe, raise resources and recruit and indoctrinate operatives — “including for homeland attacks,” according to a declassified summary of the report’s main findings.
In addition, analysts stressed the importance of al-Qaida’s increasingly comfortable hideout in Pakistan that has resulted from a hands-off accord between Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and tribal leaders along the Afghan border. That 10-month-old deal, which has unraveled in recent days, gave al-Qaida new opportunities to set up compounds for terror training, improve its international communications with associates and bolster its operations.
The assessment shows how the threat has changed.
Just two years ago, the intelligence agencies considered al-Qaida’s various “franchises” decentralized offshoots, with bin Laden mostly providing ideological direction.
National Intelligence Council Chairman Thomas Fingar said his experts believe bin Laden and his top deputy are hiding in Pakistan. “There is no question that the ungoverned character of the space is a major factor in the Taliban’s and al-Qaida’s and other extremist groups’ ability to hide — hide in plain sight,” he said.
‘Heightened threat environment’
National Intelligence Estimates are the most authoritative written judgments of the 16 spy agencies across the breadth of the U.S. government. These documents reflect the consensus long-term thinking of top intelligence analysts.
Tuesday’s publicly disclosed judgments are part of a more expansive, still-classified document, approved by the heads of all 16 intelligence agencies on June 21.
Analysts — who concluded the U.S. now faces a “heightened threat environment” — painted an increasingly familiar picture of al-Qaida: A group focused on high-profile attacks against political, economic and infrastructure targets, while striving to cause mass casualties and dramatic destruction.
FBI Deputy Director John Pistole said the bureau does not know of any al-Qaida cells in the United States, although his agents continue investigating such questions.
The estimate said international counterterrorism efforts since 2001 have hampered al-Qaida’s ability to attack the United States again, while also convincing terror groups that U.S. soil is a tougher target.
Charles Allen, the Department of Homeland Security’s top intelligence official, said the department isn’t changing the nation’s threat level, which remains at yellow, or “elevated” — the middle of a five-point scale.
Airlines remain one step higher, at orange.
Even as authorities warn of dangers in the U.S., analysts concluded the threat is more severe in Europe.
The problem could touch the United States directly, Fingar noted, because of the ease of travel between Europe and here.
Bush downplays report
The White House sought to downplay the report’s worries about the future of international counterterrorism cooperation. Bush’s homeland security adviser, Frances Fragos Townsend, said the administration isn’t concerned about being abandoned by allies. Cooperation is “actually as strong as it’s ever been,” she said.
The Bush administration also brushed off critics who say the administration released the intelligence estimate now to help its case as the Senate debates whether to withdraw troops from Iraq. White House press secretary Tony Snow said critics are “engaged in a little selective hearing ... to shape the story in their own political ways.”
Meanwhile, Democrats said the report was proof that U.S. anti-terrorism efforts are being drained by the Iraq war.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., called on the U.S. to “responsibly redeploy” its troops from Iraq and turn security over to the Iraqis. “In hindsight, we should have concentrated our efforts on al-Qaida in Afghanistan from the beginning,” he said.
Significant debate in recent weeks has focused on the genesis of the al-Qaida threat in Iraq and the nature of its links to al-Qaida’s leaders. With the intelligence report’s release, Bush sought to draw the threat in Iraq closer to bin Laden. “These people have sworn allegiance to the very same man who ordered the attack on September the 11th, 2001,” he said.
At a briefing and in a later interview, Ted Gistaro, the national intelligence officer for transnational threats, said al-Qaida in Iraq did not have any active cells when the U.S. invaded in March 2003. He said the watershed moment was when its now-deceased leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, declared his allegiance to bin Laden in an October 2004 Internet message.
Beyond al-Qaida, the report also laid out three other potential terror threats to the country:
- Lebanese Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim extremist group, may be more likely to consider attacking here, especially if it believes the United States is directly threatening the group or its main sponsor, Iran.
- The number of homegrown extremists in the U.S. and its Western allies is growing, fueled by Internet web sites and anti-American rhetoric.
- So-called “single issue” terrorist groups probably will attack here on a smaller scale. They include white supremacists, anarchists and animal rights groups, such as Animal Liberation Front.