USA — Al Qaeda

Al Qae­da Remains Dan­ger­ous, Intel Chief Tells Sen­ate

By Jim Gara­mone
Amer­i­can Forces Press Ser­vice

WASHINGTON, Feb. 5, 2008 — Al Qae­da and its affil­i­ates remain the most press­ing ter­ror­ist threats to the Unit­ed States and its allies, the nation’s top intel­li­gence offi­cial told the Sen­ate Intel­li­gence Com­mit­tee today.

Direc­tor of Nation­al Intel­li­gence Michael McConnell gave the sen­a­tors the intel­li­gence community’s annu­al unclas­si­fied threat assess­ment. He said the top suc­cess of the past year was “there was no major attack against the Unit­ed States or most of our Euro­pean, Latin Amer­i­can, East Asia allies and part­ners.”

The retired Navy vice admi­ral said the fact that there were no attacks was not an acci­dent; rather, U.S. intel­li­gence offi­cials worked with allied nations to unrav­el ter­ror­ist plots, he said. The Unit­ed States and its allies con­tin­ued to attack ter­ror groups in the Mid­dle East and Cen­tral Asia. Coali­tion allies in oth­er parts of the world shared intel­li­gence and active­ly worked against extrem­ists.

Attacks world­wide against al Qae­da do take a toll on the ter­ror­ists, McConnell said. “The death last week of Abu Layth al-Libi, al Qaeda’s charis­mat­ic senior mil­i­tary com­man­der and a key link between al Qae­da and its affil­i­ates in North Africa, is the most seri­ous blow to the group’s top lead­er­ship since the Decem­ber 2005 death of then-exter­nal oper­a­tions chief Hamza Rabia,” he said.

Al Qae­da in Iraq suf­fered major set­backs in its dri­ve to intim­i­date Iraqis and estab­lish the coun­try as al Qaeda’s base of oper­a­tions and plan­ning. The group can still mount lethal attacks in Iraq, but it is hurt, McConnell said.

“Hun­dreds of AQI lead­er­ship, oper­a­tional, media, finan­cial, logis­ti­cal, weapons, and for­eign fight­er facil­i­ta­tor cadre have been killed or cap­tured,” he said. “With much of the Sun­ni pop­u­la­tion turn­ing against AQI, its maneu­ver room and abil­i­ty to oper­ate have been severe­ly con­strained.”

The num­ber of al Qae­da attacks in Iraq dropped by more than half by the end of 2007. “We see indi­ca­tions that al Qaeda’s glob­al image is begin­ning to lose some of its lus­ter; nonethe­less, we still face mul­ti­fac­eted ter­ror­ist threats,” he said.

Al Qae­da con­tin­ues to pose sig­nif­i­cant threats to the Unit­ed States at home and abroad, and al Qaeda’s cen­tral lead­er­ship based in the bor­der area of Pak­istan is its most dan­ger­ous com­po­nent, McConnell told the sen­taors.

In July, a nation­al intel­li­gence esti­mate said al Qae­da has been able to regen­er­ate the oper­a­tional capa­bil­i­ties need­ed to con­duct attacks in the Unit­ed States. The group used safe havens in Pakistan’s fed­er­al­ly admin­is­tered trib­al area to regroup and_plan for new attacks.

“The FATA serves as a stag­ing area for al Qaeda’s attacks in sup­port of the Tal­iban in Afghanistan as well as a loca­tion for train­ing new ter­ror­ist oper­a­tives, for attacks in Pak­istan, the Mid­dle East, Africa, Europe and the Unit­ed States,” McConnell said. “It has lost many of its senior oper­a­tional plan­ners over the years, but the group’s adapt­able deci­sion-mak­ing process and bench of skilled oper­a­tives have enabled it to iden­ti­fy effec­tive replace­ments.”

Al Qae­da lead­ers Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri con­tin­ue to lead the ter­ror group and focus on their strate­gic vision of con­fronting the Unit­ed States and its allies with mass casu­al­ty attacks around the globe, McConnell said. “Although secu­ri­ty con­cerns pre­clude them from the day-to-day run­ning of the orga­ni­za­tion, bin Laden and Zawahiri reg­u­lar­ly pass inspi­ra­tional mes­sages and spe­cif­ic oper­a­tional guid­ance to their fol­low­ers through pub­lic state­ments,” he explained.

The direc­tor said al Qae­da is iden­ti­fy­ing, train­ing and posi­tion­ing oper­a­tives for an attack in the Unit­ed States.

“While increased secu­ri­ty mea­sures at home and abroad have caused al Qae­da to view the West, espe­cial­ly the Unit­ed States, as a hard­er tar­get, we have seen an influx of new West­ern recruits into the trib­al areas since mid-2006,” McConnell said. “We assess that al Qaeda’s home­land plot­ting is like­ly to con­tin­ue to focus on promi­nent polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic and infra­struc­ture tar­gets designed to pro­duce mass casu­al­ties, visu­al­ly dra­mat­ic destruc­tion, sig­nif­i­cant eco­nom­ic after­shocks, and/or fear among the pop­u­la­tion.”

McConnell said con­ven­tion­al explo­sives prob­a­bly will be the most prob­a­ble al Qae­da attack sce­nario. “That said, al Qae­da and oth­er ter­ror­ist groups are attempt­ing to acquire chem­i­cal, bio­log­i­cal, radi­o­log­i­cal, and nuclear weapons and mate­ri­als,” he added. “We assess al Qae­da will con­tin­ue to try to acquire and employ these weapons and mate­ri­als; some chem­i­cal and radi­o­log­i­cal mate­ri­als and crude weapons designs are eas­i­ly acces­si­ble, in our judg­ment.”

Al Qae­da affil­i­ates pose prob­lems from Africa to South­east Asia, he said. Al Qae­da in the Lands of the Islam­ic Maghreb is the most active ter­ror­ist group in north­west­ern Africa. “We assess it rep­re­sents a sig­nif­i­cant threat to U.S. and Euro­pean inter­ests in the region,” he said.

The group focus­es pri­mar­i­ly on Alger­ian gov­ern­ment tar­gets, but the group has expand­ed its tar­get set to include Unit­ed States, Unit­ed Nations and oth­er inter­ests, he said. “Improve­ments in (the group’s) use of impro­vised explo­sive devices sug­gest the group is acquir­ing knowl­edge trans­mit­ted from extrem­ists in Iraq,” he said.

Al Qae­da also con­tin­ues to_plan to attack tar­gets in Sau­di Ara­bia, the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates, Yemen and Bahrain.

The group’s pres­ence in Lebanon is grow­ing, but it is dimin­ish­ing in East Africa. McConnell said, and groups affil­i­at­ed with al Qae­da con­tin­ue to oper­ate in Indone­sia and in the Philip­pines.

Over­all, the group is los­ing its lus­ter with all but the most rad­i­cal Mus­lims, McConnell said.

“The bru­tal attacks against Mus­lim civil­ians unleashed by (al Qae­da in Iraq) and (al Qae­da in the Mah­greb) and the con­flict­ing demands of the var­i­ous extrem­ist agen­das are tar­nish­ing al Qaeda’s self-styled image as the extrem­ist van­guard,” said he told the sen­a­tors. “Over the past year, a num­ber of reli­gious lead­ers and fel­low extrem­ists who once had sig­nif­i­cant influ­ence with al Qae­da have pub­licly crit­i­cized it and its affil­i­ates for the use of vio­lent tac­tics.”