By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 3, 2007
The next terrorist assault on the United States is likely to come through relatively unsophisticated, near-simultaneous attacks -- similar to those attempted in Britain over the weekend -- designed more to provoke widespread fear and panic than to cause major losses of life, U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials believe.
Such attacks require minimal expertise and training and are difficult to prevent. Although British investigators have not claimed al-Qaeda involvement in the latest incidents, officials here said they may constitute a "hybrid" phenomenon, in which al-Qaeda inspires and guides local groups from afar but establishes no visible operational or logistical links.
The connection, several officials said, is made through a growing network of al-Qaeda intermediaries and affiliates who are far removed from the organization's leadership.
"What is a direct link?" asked one counterterrorism official. "Is it couriers? Messengers?" U.S. officials "from very senior folks" on down, he said, are watching as the British work to reconstruct the attacks and trace their origin.
In an internal memo titled "Staying on Target," CIA Director Michael V. Hayden told agency employees yesterday that "events in Great Britain since last Friday serve as a reminder -- if we ever needed one -- that this remains a dangerous world and that our work in defending America is as important as ever."
The incidents in England and Scotland, counterterrorism officials said, coincide with recent U.S. intelligence indicating stepped-up movement of money and people from al-Qaeda camps in the ungoverned tribal areas of Pakistan, near the Afghan border. Several senior U.S. military officials were sharply critical yesterday of what they saw as the Pakistani government's unwillingness to move forcefully against the camps and the U.S. administration's failure to press Pakistan harder to curtail what one called a terrorist "growth industry."
Al-Qaeda's "presence in the tribal areas has not been this secure since before 9/11," one senior U.S. military intelligence official wrote in an e-mail.
Hayden's memo appeared designed to rally his troops in the face of the morale-deadening criticism directed at the intelligence community in recent years. Accused of incompetence for failing to warn of the September 2001 attacks and for providing faulty intelligence on Iraq, it is also charged with overzealous anti-terrorism efforts that see al-Qaeda operatives under every bed.
"Even as we deal with the current threat," Hayden's memo said, "it is hard not to notice the growing debates on both sides of the Atlantic about certain aspects of the war on terrorism: Guantanamo, habeas corpus, detentions, renditions, electronic surveillance, etc. For us, though, the choices are pretty clear: We will use all of our lawful authorities to defend America and her friends.
"Some say elements of the current debate reflect the thinking of a pre-9/11 world," the short memo concluded. "Don't worry about that. Keep your eye on our objective. For all of us at CIA, today's date is clear: It's always September 12th."
After the events in Britain, U.S. officials have tried to strike a balance between insisting that "we do not currently have any specific threat information that is credible about a particular attack in the United States," as Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said yesterday, and asking Americans to keep a careful watch on their surroundings.
Although the Department of Homeland Security did not raise the threat level, Chertoff and other officials said that security and surveillance have been increased in several ways, including the placement of more U.S. marshals on flights to Britain and other European destinations.
Officials said the weekend's events had only heightened existing concerns. "It's not just what happened in England and Scotland that has us watching," another counterterrorism official said. "We have had some concerns for some time."
On Jan. 22, the Holland Tunnel in New York was evacuated for several hours after a suspicious package was spotted after an accident. Hazardous-materials teams were brought in, and the package was blown up by a robot before the tunnel was reopened.
In Georgetown on Saturday night, some restaurants and nightclubs were evacuated after firefighters spotted an abandoned backpack on a sidewalk. And on Sunday afternoon, police set up checkpoints on the access route into Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, stopping some cars and trucks for inspection.
A senior administration official acknowledged that recent arrests of groups charged with plotting terrorist attacks in Miami and at Fort Dix, N.J., and John F. Kennedy International Airport, as well as the arrest of a man charged with planning to detonate an explosive device in an Illinois shopping mall, have "come under a great deal of criticism for not being serious."
But the official saw some vindication for U.S. law enforcement in the British plots. "Remember that the FBI and the law enforcement community have done important work in nipping these cells in the bud so that we don't get to the stage of cars pouring into an airport terminal," the official said.
Saying that the British incidents "certainly appeared to be al-Qaeda-inspired," the official said they were more of a "reminder" of an ongoing threat in this country than an indication that similar attacks are imminent here.
Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism expert at Georgetown University, said he considered al-Qaeda involvement likely in the British incidents and disagreed with those who labeled the attacks amateurish. "They didn't work, but I think of all the al-Qaeda plots we've seen, their sophistication is in their simplicity. They used available materials. Where they tripped up is in the detonation of the devices. That's a trickier business."
The alleged perpetrators under arrest in Britain -- two of them physicians -- pose a challenge for both British and U.S. intelligence officials. The doctors' names did not appear on any U.S. list of people with suspected terrorist ties, U.S. officials said.
Al-Qaeda has made a "strategic investment" in Britain in recent years, Hoffman said, creating ties to an infrastructure of individuals and groups that are difficult to fit into an intelligence profile.
By drawing from a large reservoir of potential operatives, Hoffman said, al-Qaeda is attempting to "break any attempt at profiles, and also to demonstrate the diversity of their movement."
Staff writers Thomas E. Ricks and John Solomon contributed to this report.