Three top U.S. intelligence officials said Wednesday that a resurgent Al Qaeda had stepped up training and worldwide operations from safe havens in Pakistan, a development they worry could lead to ambitious new attacks.
However, the CIA’s director for intelligence, John Kringen, and other counter-terrorism officials downplayed recent news reports and comments from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff that suggested there was a heightened risk of an Al Qaeda attack on the United States this summer, saying they had no intelligence about such a strike.
Chertoff is “right that their planning-to-execution cycle might suggest summer is the window of choice,” said one counter-terrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because his agency prohibits its employees from publicly discussing intelligence matters. “But there is no specific credible threat right now.”
Even without seeing indicators of a specific attack, officials said, they do believe that the overall risk from Al Qaeda is rising. The U.S. attacks on Al Qaeda’s former base in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 severely disrupted Osama bin Laden’s network. But since then, Al Qaeda has rebuilt its headquarters in Pakistan and is more dangerous than at any time since the Sept. 11 attacks, according to a new classified threat assessment.
Kringen said that Bin Laden is being protected by powerful local tribal leaders along the Afghan-Pakistani border and that the safe haven has enabled his network to regroup and rebuild its ability to strike the United States.
Intelligence officials assume that Al Qaeda will continue to try to attack the United States, Kringen said in an interview, adding: “We begin with the premise that the home run hit is the United States.”
Chertoff said Tuesday that he was basing his assessment on a “gut feeling” from previous patterns of attack, Al Qaeda statements and intelligence that he did not disclose.
The Homeland Security chief “started this thing, but we are trying not to hype it,” said the counter-terrorism official.
Chertoff clarified his remarks Wednesday, saying in an interview with the Washington Post that what he meant to convey was “a more general, strategic sense of the threat environment,” based on publicly reported information rather than secret intelligence.
In the new threat assessment, U.S. intelligence officials lay most of the blame for Al Qaeda’s resurgence on a peace agreement between the Pakistani government and tribal leaders last fall, said the counter-terrorism official and a colleague familiar with its contents, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. The report concludes that the agreement has given the terrorist network virtually free rein to plan attacks worldwide, they said.
The report, titled “Al Qaeda Better Positioned to Strike the West,” makes dire assessments of the network’s ability to attack within the United States and Europe, the two officials said. They said its conclusions will be incorporated into a more comprehensive and formal National Intelligence Estimate that is scheduled to be released this summer after two years of preparation. Details about the report were first disclosed Wednesday by the Associated Press.
Kringen said Wednesday in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee that Al Qaeda seemed “to be fairly well settled into the safe haven in the ungoverned spaces of Pakistan,” adding that “we see more training. We see more money, and we see more communications.”
At the congressional hearing, Thomas Fingar, chief of U.S. intelligence analysis, Robert Cardillo, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s deputy director for analysis, and Kringen spent more than three hours discussing a wide array of threats, including Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program, alleged economic espionage by China and Russia and the destabilization of large swaths of Africa.
They spent much of the hearing answering pointed questions about Al Qaeda’s presence in Pakistan, offering new details about the network’s operations in tribal areas that border Afghanistan and about the elusive Al Qaeda leader.
U.S. intelligence and military officials are traditionally reluctant to discuss what they know about Bin Laden’s whereabouts, or even if he is alive and healthy, after much public speculation that he was either in failing health or dead.
But Wednesday, Kringen said U.S. intelligence officials believe that Bin Laden is alive, “probably” in the tribal areas of Pakistan and hard to catch because he “goes into extended periods in which he does not communicate, does not interact with anyone directly.”
When asked by Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D-N.J.) why the CIA hadn’t worked more closely with tribal leaders to catch Bin Laden, Kringen responded: “In some cases, those tribal leaders are the very people who are protecting him, sir.”
“We’ve had rewards out for Bin Laden for a long period of time, and economic motivation is not a principal driver of how they behave,” he added.
M. Akram Shaheedi, the Pakistani spokesman in Washington, said the CIA should share whatever information it has on Bin Laden’s whereabouts with the Islamabad government.
“Nobody knows where Osama bin Laden is, and if they do know where he is, they should let us know, and we will get him,” Shaheedi said. “It is all wild guessing. Nobody knows where he is.”
The three intelligence officials said Al Qaeda’s command and control in Pakistan has been extremely successful recently both in planning operations and in franchising the Al Qaeda name to affiliates and sympathizers around the world. They cited the case of “Al Qaeda in the Maghreb,” a group of Algerian militant organizations that has pledged allegiance to Bin Laden and has become more active in North Africa.
“They continue to maintain active connections and relationships that radiate outward from their leaders hiding in Pakistan to affiliates throughout the Middle East, North and East Africa, and Europe,” Fingar said at the hearing.
In his interview, Kringen said that despite the lack of intelligence about a specific plot, U.S. authorities were extremely concerned about the possibility of such a strike on U.S. soil. He said they were working closely with their British counterparts to pursue any connections to Al Qaeda in Pakistan and to the attempted car bombings at the end of June in Britain.