Al Qaeda's changing threat to US

Intelligence officials see cells acting on own - and targeting US.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Sure Al Qaeda has been weakened, but it has transformed itself into a collection of regional terror groups that operate more autonomously and may be even more dangerous. And although Saddam Hussein has been removed, Iraq is increasingly becoming a rallying point for terrorists.

"As we continue the battle against Al Qaeda, we must overcome a movement - a global movement infected by Al Qaeda's radical agenda," said George Tenet, director of the CIA.

Mr. Tenet, along with the directors of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the FBI, laid out their world threat assessments before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee this week, and Tenet will give a similar appraisal Thursday to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

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True, there have been successes, and those were heralded, too. But the overarching message is that the world is at least as dangerous as last year. Without added diplomatic efforts to stem rising Islamic disaffection with the West, it is likely to become even more so.

"What this suggests is that a military policy - although forceful and useful in some cases, like Afghanistan - is not a recipe for getting rid of terrorism," says Antonia Chayes, an expert in international conflict at Tufts University's Fletcher School in Medford, Mass. "We need to look at the conditions in those impoverished and chaotic countries to help them so they don't become future Afghanistans or Sudans."

More attacks coming in US

While Tenet and the other directors spoke on Tuesday, tapes were broadcast in the Arab world that seemed to emphasize their views. Osama bin Laden's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, directly attacked President Bush's State of the Union address and threatened the US with more attacks. Indeed, the intelligence chiefs' assessments of Al Qaeda's abilities is disconcerting.

• Tenet: "Successive blows to Al Qaeda's central leadership have transformed the organization into a loose collection of regional networks that operate more autonomously. These regional components have demonstrated their operational prowess" in attacks from Morocco to Saudi Arabia to Indonesia.

• DIA head Lowell Jacoby: "Capable but less experienced individuals are replacing those captured. Al Qaeda continues to enjoy considerable support and is able to recruit terrorists."

• FBI Director Robert Mueller: "There are strong indications that Al Qaeda will revisit missed targets until they succeed, such as they did with the World Trade Center. The list of missed targets now includes the White House and the Capitol."

Mr. Mueller noted that Al Qaeda "has a cadre of supporters within the US." Those, he added, were not just of Middle Eastern origin, but included other ethnic groups as well. Nor are their operations just limited to just fundraising. "There have been cases of those apparently involved in operational planning," he said.

Instability on ground in Iraq

The situation in Iraq may not be much better. "The insurgency we face in Iraq comprises multiple groups with different motivations but with the same goal: driving the US and our coalition partners from Iraq," Tenet said. "A hard core of former regime elements - Baath Party officials, military, intelligence, and security officers - are still organizing and carrying out attacks."

Vice Admiral Jacoby termed Iraq the "latest jihad for Sunni extremists." "Iraq has the potential to serve as a training ground for the next generation of terrorists where novice recruits develop their skills, junior operatives hone their organizational and planning capabilities, and relations mature between individuals and groups as was the case during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and extremist operations in the Balkans," he said. Jacoby added that in Iraq, "the Sunni population has not decided whether to back the coalition or support the opposition."

So winning those hearts and minds in the Arab/Muslim world is becoming increasingly important - and more dismal. "Support for America has dropped in most of the Muslim world," Jacoby noted. In Morocco, for example, he cited public opinion surveys showing support for the US dropping from 77 percent in 2000 to 27 percent in the spring of last year. In Jordan, it fell from 25 percent in 2002 to 1 percent in May 2003. And in Saudi Arabia, it fell from 63 percent in May of 2000 to 11 percent in October 2003.

"Essentially this suggests that the policies have to reach back into those countries that are supplying the terrorists and into those that are harboring the terrorists," says Ms. Chayes.

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