Small Terrorist Units Now the Biggest Threat, Tenet Warns
CIA Director George J. Tenet warned Tuesday that a wave of smaller, scattered terrorist organizations was eclipsing Al Qaeda as the most serious threat to the United States and its allies, and that Iraq was increasingly seen as a “golden opportunity” for jihadist groups to rally their cause.
Tenet told a Senate panel that Al Qaeda had been badly damaged by military and intelligence operations after the Sept. 11 attacks, but that the network had splintered into a collection of smaller franchises -- and inspired the proliferation of others -- that see the United States as their main enemy and prime target.
Describing the rise of such organizations as “the next wave of the terrorist threat,” Tenet said Al Qaeda’s message and methods have spread so swiftly that “a serious threat will remain for the foreseeable future, with or without Al Qaeda in the picture.”
“These far-flung groups increasingly set the agenda and are redefining the threat we face,” Tenet said, pointing to attacks by these organizations in countries from Morocco to Indonesia. “They are not all creatures of [Osama] bin Laden, and so their fate is not tied to his. They have autonomous leadership, they pick their own targets, they plan their own attacks.”
Tenet’s sober assessment of the evolving terrorist threat came during testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee as part of its annual hearing on global security issues. But because it was Tenet’s first public appearance before the panel since the war in Iraq last year, he also spent much of his time fending off criticism of his agency’s prewar assessments on Iraq and its weapons programs.
Tenet said that Iraq has become a “a very large drain of people and resources” at the agency, and suggested that the CIA’s clandestine service was struggling to stay on top of overseas trouble spots that aren’t related to Iraq or the war on terrorism. “The issue for us will be global coverage against other issues,” Tenet said.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and Vice Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, also testified Tuesday. The three officials sought to call attention to successes in the war on terrorism, but their testimony also pointed to a disturbing rise in anti-American sentiment around the world and suggested that Iraq is emerging as a rallying point for jihadists and a potential training ground for future terrorists.
Tenet said that Al Qaeda continues to lose operational havens and that “Bin Laden has gone deep underground.” But he stressed that Al Qaeda remains committed to striking the United States and cited several previously undisclosed plots.
Terrorists linked to Al Qaeda have sought to recruit pilots during the last year, Tenet said, adding that “catastrophic attacks” on the scale of Sept. 11 remain within Al Qaeda’s reach. Such concerns have prompted the cancellation of a number of transatlantic flights recently.
“Across the operational spectrum -- air, maritime, special weapons -- we have time and again uncovered plots that are chilling,” Tenet said. He said that Al Qaeda and “more than two dozen other terrorist groups” are seeking to obtain chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons.
“We particularly see a heightened risk of poison attacks,” he said. “Extremists have widely disseminated assembly instructions for an improvised chemical weapon using common materials that could cause a large number of casualties in a crowded, enclosed area.”
Al Qaeda has “infected” other groups with its anti-American ideology, Tenet said, citing Ansar al-Islam in Iraq, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. He also pointed to the network operated by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian believed to be behind suicide attacks on coalition forces and Iraqi targets in recent months.
Mueller said there are “strong indications” that Al Qaeda remains focused on striking a number of U.S. facilities that it has targeted in the past, including the White House and the U.S. Capitol. He said the terrorist network “retains a cadre of supporters within the United States,” and is seeking to recruit more. While most are engaged in fundraising, recruitment and logistics, he said, others have been involved in operational planning.
All three intelligence officials said economic stagnation, repression and exploding youth populations in Islamic countries could fuel the terrorist threat for years. Jacoby cited polling numbers showing that anti-American sentiment is soaring in countries including Morocco, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
The war in Iraq has been a flashpoint for such opposition and “has the potential to serve as a training ground for the next generation of terrorists,” much as Afghanistan and the Balkans did, Jacoby said.
Some lawmakers echoed those concerns.
“The question I am wrestling with this morning is whether we are safer today than we were when you were here a year ago,” said Sen. John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the committee. “We fought a war against a vicious dictator, but bringing security to Iraq remains elusive, and we are paying a high price in blood.”
Tenet and Jacoby offered guarded assessments of the situation in Iraq, citing some progress but also saying that the insurgency remains a serious threat to the successful transition to a new Iraqi government planned for later this year.
Tenet, who visited Baghdad last week, said it is encouraging that a leading Iraqi cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, wants free elections and appears to oppose an Iranian-style theocracy. He also said Iraqi Sunnis, who prospered under Saddam Hussein’s rule but now face a future as a less-favored minority, appear increasingly inclined to cooperate with the coalition.
But he noted that the number of attacks on U.S. and coalition forces is as high now as it was in August and pointed to troubling interference from Syria and Iran. He said that foreign terrorists are trying to create a “Taliban-like enclave in Iraq’s Sunni heartland that could be a jihadist safe haven.”
Tenet’s appearance before the committee was his first in open session since it became clear that the CIA’s prewar assessments on Iraq’s weapons programs were far off the mark. The agency’s judgments that Iraq had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons were key to the Bush administration’s case for war, but so far no stockpiles have been found. David Kay, who resigned as head of the weapons hunt last month, has said the prewar intelligence was simply wrong.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has launched an investigation of intelligence failures in Iraq, and lawmakers from both parties expressed their displeasure with Tenet on Tuesday.
“People voted to authorize use of force based on what we read” in intelligence reports, said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). “When we send our military out and find nothing, and then Dr. Kay goes over and finds nothing ... it’s a pretty bitter pill to swallow.”
Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) accused Tenet of sending a “mixed message” by testifying about the seriousness of the Iraqi threat before the war, and then insisting in recent weeks that the CIA never portrayed Baghdad as an “imminent” danger to the United States.
After seeming off-balance during portions of the questioning, Tenet defended the agency he has led for six years, saying analysts were influenced by Iraq’s history of hiding its pursuit of illicit weapons. He also said that the CIA would own up to any failures after the search for weapons was over.
“We are not perfect, but we are pretty damn good at what we do, and we care as much as you do about Iraq and whether we were right or wrong,” Tenet said. “We are going to work through it in a way where we tell the truth as to whether we were right or wrong.”
Tenet said the CIA still does not have evidence showing that Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta met with an Iraqi agent in Prague before the attacks -- a connection touted by some in the administration as proof of a connection between Al Qaeda and Hussein.
Tenet also said he had recently spoken with Vice President Dick Cheney to inform him that there is now considerable doubt that two trailers found in Iraq were biological weapons laboratories. Cheney recently said the existence of the trailers was “conclusive” proof of Baghdad’s weapons programs.
“I don’t think he was aware of where we were in terms of the community’s agreement on this,” Tenet said. “I’ve talked to him subsequent to that. I’ve explained the disagreements. I’ve told him that there’s one side that thinks one thing and one side that thinks another thing. So in fairness to him, I think he was going off of an older judgment that was embodied in a paper.”
Tenet and Jacoby offered pessimistic assessments of recent events in Iran, saying that the victory of hard-liners in recent elections was likely to lead to greater repression and that the country continues to support terrorist groups and hide illicit weapons activity. In particular, Tenet said, Iran’s supposed pursuit of nuclear technology to generate power was legal, but could also be used to make weapons.
“It would be a significant challenge for intelligence to confidently assess whether that red line had been crossed,” he said.
The two men said U.S. intelligence also was closely monitoring strife in Haiti. Jacoby said “police posts and other government facilities have been abandoned” in the northern part of the country.
“We’re watching closely for any preparations for exodus,” he said, referring to the possibility that Haitians may board boats bound for U.S. shores.
Times staff writer Bob Drogin contributed to this report.
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