By Karen DeYoung and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
Al-Qaeda has reestablished its central organization, training infrastructure and lines of global communication over the past two years, putting the United States in a "heightened threat environment" despite expanded worldwide counterterrorism efforts, according to a new intelligence estimate.
Intelligence officials attributed the al-Qaeda gains primarily to its establishment of a safe haven in ungoverned areas of northwestern Pakistan. Its affiliation with the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, the report said, has helped it to "energize" extremists elsewhere and has aided Osama bin Laden's recruitment and funding.
The estimate concluded that "the U.S. Homeland will face a persistent and evolving terrorist threat over the next three years." Al-Qaeda, it said, "is and will remain" the most serious element of that threat.
The report stressed the effectiveness of counterterrorism measures, in cooperation with other countries, in disrupting terrorist networks and preventing attacks against the United States in the years immediately after Sept. 11, 2001. But it expressed concern that cooperation may wane as memories fade and as perceptions of the nature and origin of the threat diverge.
The assessment was released yesterday in a two-page declassified summary of key judgments of a National Intelligence Estimate titled "The Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Homeland." The estimate mentioned a number of possible threat sources, from Hezbollah in Lebanon to self-generating radical cells in Europe and this country.
It was the second government report in the past week that pointed to a heightened risk from al-Qaeda. The other, written by the National Counterterrorism Center, was titled "Al-Qaida Better Positioned to Strike the West."
An NIE on global terrorism written in April 2006 described a downward trend in al-Qaeda's capabilities since bin Laden and the rest of the group's surviving leadership were driven from their sanctuaries in Afghanistan by U.S. military forces in December 2001. That report, like the one issued yesterday, said that the Iraq war was a primary recruitment vehicle for al-Qaeda. But the earlier report concluded that al-Qaeda's operations had been disrupted and its leadership was "seriously damaged."
In a briefing for reporters yesterday, senior intelligence officials said they expect al-Qaeda to continue trying to "leverage" the contacts and capabilities al-Qaeda in Iraq has established in that country. But they attributed the resurgence of bin Laden's organization almost entirely to its protected safe haven among tribal groups in North Waziristan, part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in northwestern Pakistan.
"Over the past 18 to 24 months, safe haven in Pakistan has become more secure," said Edward Gistaro, national intelligence officer for transnational threats and the primary author of the NIE. The safe haven, Gistaro said, had allowed al-Qaeda to pull together a new tier of leadership in the form of "lieutenants . . . coming off the bench," many of them with long experience at bin Laden's side.
U.S. intelligence and military officials have expressed rising frustration with the government of President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan. They credit Musharraf with significantly disrupting al-Qaeda havens in the tribal areas in 2004, with operations that led to the capture of most of bin Laden's senior aides. Since then, the Pakistani military has largely stayed away from the region, and last September Musharraf formally signed an agreement with tribal leaders allowing them to police the area.
In the past week, the Bush administration has publicly declared that the agreement failed, and officials said yesterday that Musharraf had changed his policy. Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, said yesterday that Musharraf is "moving forces, again, into that region to put pressure on al-Qaeda."
In separate remarks to an intelligence conference yesterday, McConnell painted a picture of al-Qaeda activities and the threat to the United States that went beyond the NIE judgments. "They're working as hard as they can in positioning trained operatives here in the United States. . . . They have recruitment programs to bring recruits into . . . Pakistan, particularly those that speak the right language, that have the right skills, that have the right base that they could come to the United States, fit into the population . . . and carry out acts," he said.
Bin Laden's ability to establish a safe haven for training and planning has been uppermost in the minds of intelligence and counterterrorism officials since the late 1990s. Missile strikes authorized in 1998 by President Bill Clinton against al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan appeared to have little effect on bin Laden's operations. In the summer of 2001, President Bush received an intelligence warning titled "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in the U.S.," but the Sept. 11 attacks occurred before action was taken.
Since then, various administration officials have hailed the success of U.S. counterterrorism efforts. In February 2003, then-CIA Director George Tenet told Congress that "more than one-third of the top al-Qaeda leadership identified before the [Afghanistan] war has been killed or captured." Three months later, Bush increased that number to "about half" in a speech he gave in May, amid early concerns that the two-month-old Iraq war had diverted administration attention from the hunt for bin Laden. "Al-Qaeda is on the run," Bush said.
In early 2004, as the Pakistani offensive was bolstered by U.S. and Afghan forces on the other side of the border, Tenet described al-Qaeda's leadership as "seriously damaged" and noted that it had continued to lose "operational safe havens." The next year, Vice Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency at the time, told Congress that after those operations, "the fundamentalist Islamic terrorist threat has splintered and decentralized."
Those previous judgments were "basically correct at the time," said Thomas Fingar, head of the National Intelligence Council, which assembles NIEs for the 16-agency intelligence community. "All of this has a high level of uncertainty to it, but the situation had changed," he added. Fingar said that one lesson learned from the past, when analysts just repeated and built upon earlier assessments -- as with the faulty judgments of Saddam Hussein's weapons capabilities -- is that previous NIEs are no longer "sacred text."
Fingar said the intelligence community is not stepping back from its past judgment that as much as three-quarters of the pre-Sept. 11 al-Qaeda leadership was killed or captured. "The obvious word is 'reconstitution,' " he said.
Although the NIE described al-Qaeda in Iraq as the only al-Qaeda affiliate "known to have expressed a desire to attack the Homeland," administration and intelligence officials yesterday cited only one such reference to that threat -- an audio statement posted in November on the Web site of a British-based Saudi dissident group. In the statement, Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, the al-Qaeda in Iraq leader, threatened to "blow up the filthiest house, which is called the White House."
The Bush administration has long described al-Qaeda in Iraq as an operational subsidiary to the main al-Qaeda group, though intelligence officials have said the main al-Qaeda organization exercises little control over the Iraq group. Yesterday's NIE suggested that al-Qaeda derives stature from al-Qaeda in Iraq's activities, rather than the other way around.
Staff writer Robin Wright and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.