Nearly six years after the United States set out to crush Al Qaeda, the terrorist network has “regenerated key elements” of its ability to attack targets in America and is intensifying its efforts to put operatives inside the country, according to a sobering new report from U.S. intelligence agencies.
The document says counter-terrorism efforts have constrained the ability of Al Qaeda to launch attacks in the United States. But it warns that the country is in a “heightened threat environment” largely because Osama bin Laden and his senior deputies have moved to reestablish their leadership of the far-flung network and refocus its energies on striking the United States.
The report also concludes that Al Qaeda “will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities” of the Iraq-based group Al Qaeda in Iraq. The document says the ongoing war has given a new generation of operatives lethal experience and has helped the broader network raise money and get recruits.
Many of the report’s themes have come up previously in testimony by U.S. intelligence officials. But the document is the U.S. intelligence community’s first comprehensive examination of the domestic terrorism threat in 20 years. The document, formally titled the National Intelligence Estimate on the Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Homeland, represents the consensus view of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies.
Director of National Intelligence J. Michael McConnell released a declassified, two-page version of the report’s key assessments on Tuesday, and it quickly entered the political debate over the war in Iraq.
President Bush touted the report Tuesday as evidence that Al Qaeda was “not nearly as strong as they were” before Sept. 11. He also called for a commitment to his course in Iraq, saying Islamic terrorists “want us to leave parts of the world, like Iraq, so they can establish a safe haven from which to spread their poisonous ideology.”
But Democrats cited the report as evidence that the war in Iraq had worsened the terrorist threat.
“I think it’s clear evidence that Bush’s claim that we’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them here was, and is, false,” said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), chairwoman of the Homeland Security subcommittee on intelligence. “The threat here is increasing, and part of it relates to the strength of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which is a threat that postdates our military action in Iraq.”
In the Senate, Democratic lawmakers plan another vote today on a measure to compel the president to begin withdrawing troops.
U.S. intelligence officials who discussed the document emphasized that American spy agencies had not detected any specific plot against U.S. targets or seen evidence of an Al Qaeda infiltration into the United States. For that reason, officials said, federal authorities are not raising the color-coded domestic threat level above “elevated,” or yellow.
“We are at the heightened state we should be,” said Charles Allen, a senior Homeland Security Department official.
Officials said the document was meant to assess the “persistent and evolving terrorist threat” that the United States was expected to face over the next three years.
Thomas Fingar, deputy director of national intelligence for analysis, said it was a “landmark” report, combining input from spy agencies that operate overseas, such as the CIA, and those that monitor threats within the U.S., such as the FBI and the Homeland Security Department.
The report says that steps taken by the United States since the Sept. 11 attacks have made it harder for Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations to hit domestic targets. But it details other developments that have strengthened Al Qaeda and raise concern that the network might thwart U.S. defenses.
In particular, the report says the core of Al Qaeda’s leadership has been bolstered by the Pakistani government’s decision last year to scale back military operations in the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. Less concerned with security, Bin Laden and his senior deputies have been able to communicate more with affiliates, as well as assemble what one U.S. intelligence official described as “compounds” that function as small-scale terrorist training camps.
The document also concludes that rising unrest among Muslim populations around the world means Al Qaeda is less dependent on its ability to slip trained operatives into Western countries, as it did with the Sept. 11 hijackers. Instead, according to the report, Al Qaeda can tap into a disturbing trend in which “the radical and violent segment of the West’s Muslim population is expanding, including in the United States.”
Officials said the so-called homegrown terrorist threat remained more severe in Europe than in the United States, where the Muslim population is smaller, more diverse and more likely to assimilate.
But the report warns that the war in Iraq has agitated Muslim populations, and that Al Qaeda’s association with the insurgency helps it “to energize the broader Sunni extremist community, raise resources, and to recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for homeland attacks.”
The report provides some support for Bush’s recent assertions that Al Qaeda in Iraq poses a threat to U.S. citizens at home.
Fingar said Tuesday that Al Qaeda in Iraq members had gained tactical experience in covert communications, smuggling, making improvised explosive devices and other dangerous activities, and that the group had publicly expressed an interest in attacking the United States.
“That knowledge is portable,” Fingar said at a counter-terrorism conference later in the day. “Those people can move.”
But senior U.S. intelligence officials contradicted other remarks by Bush, including his statements equating those who carry out bombings in Iraq to the Sept. 11 hijackers.
The report’s principal author, Edward Gistaro, the national intelligence officer for transnational threats, said during a briefing with reporters that Al Qaeda in Iraq did not exist before the U.S. invasion. He also said that the group’s “overwhelming focus” remained confined to the conflict in Iraq.
In a speech in Washington, McConnell said the intelligence community was still worried that Bin Laden, his deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, and a trained cadre of operational lieutenants were intent on launching an attack on “political, economic and infrastructure targets” in the United States that would be larger than Sept. 11.
He also said Al Qaeda was still seeking chemical, biological and nuclear devices, but analysts do not believe the network has acquired such weapons.
Although the National Intelligence Estimate describes Al Qaeda as the organization that poses the greatest threat to the United States, it also warns that Lebanese Hezbollah “may be more likely to consider attacking the homeland over the next three years if it perceives the United States as posing a direct threat to the group or Iran.”
Times staff writer Noam Levey contributed to this report.