WASHINGTON - 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
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
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,"
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.
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
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.