WASHINGTON — The militant organization that was once the scourge of the U.S. militarycampaign in Iraq and probably is responsible for more than 100 deaths in the country over the last few days has set its sights on launching attacks in the United States, intelligence officials said.
Al Qaeda in Iraq released a message this week that threatened to strike at the “heart” of the United States, and several associates of the group have been arrested in the U.S. and Canada in the last two years, said American officials, a sign that the organization has tried to establish a network in North America.
The arrests highlight “the potential threat posed to the United States” from Al Qaeda in Iraq, said Matthew Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, during a hearing Wednesday before the House Homeland Security Committee examining the current threat from terrorism to the United States.
Al Qaeda in Iraq had been known primarily for launching attacks against the American forces in Iraq and the Shiite Muslim-led government there, as well as helping to plot attacks in neighboring Jordan.
But “there are networks and recruiting efforts in the U.S. and Canada,” said Seth Jones, an expert on Al Qaeda at the Rand Corp. and author of “Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of Al Qaeda since9/11.”
“You can say pretty categorically that Al Qaeda in Iraq appears to be strengthening from where it was two years ago,” even as Al Qaeda’s senior leaders in Pakistan have been killed, Jones said.
Al Qaeda in Iraq was pummeled more than five years ago by a coalition of Sunni Arab tribal leaders in western Iraq and U.S. forces, but experts who study Al Qaeda say that the organization in Iraq has begun to rebuild, energized in the last year by the violent uprising next door in Syria and an influx of cash from wealthy benefactors in the Persian Gulf. U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq in December.
On Sunday, the day before the latest wave of attacks in Iraq killed at least 110 people, the militant group released an audio recording to mark the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The message announced a new campaign of violence against the Iraqi government, praised Syria’s uprising and made a call for new recruits to join the group. It also spoke directly to Americans.
“You will soon witness how attacks will resound in the heart of your land, because our war with you has now started,” said a man that identified himself as Abu Bakr Baghdadi, the pseudonym used by the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Attacking inside the United States is easier said than done, said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), who sits on the House Homeland Security Committee and has been briefed on the threat to the U.S. from the Iraqi group.
“But when you have the leader signaling that it is time to go on the offensive, there is a heightened sense of concern for law enforcement and intelligence agencies here in the U.S.,” McCaul said.
Two Iraqi refugees were arrested in Kentucky in May of last year and charged with attempting to ship weapons from the U.S. to assist Al Qaeda in Iraq. The fingerprint of one of the men had allegedly been found on a bomb that attacked a U.S. convoy in Iraq in 2005. Federal officials believe the two men had been trained to build roadside bombs from cordless telephones.
In January 2011, a Canadian man named Faruq Isa was arrested for allegedly recruiting fighters to launch attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq. Isa is fighting extradition to the U.S. from Canada to face charges of conspiracy to kill Americans.