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National Intelligence Estimate: Al Qaeda stronger and a threat to US homeland

Report points to war in Iraq and Pakistan's tribal areas as allowing Al Qaeda to regroup.

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Following the report's release, Bush said it indicated that Al Qaeda was "not nearly as strong as they were" before Sept. 11, reports the Los Angeles Times. Urging Americans to remain committed to the Iraq mission, Bush said that Islamic terrorists "want us to leave parts of the world, like Iraq, so they can establish a safe haven from which to spread their poisonous ideology." Democrats, however, argued that the report served as evidence that the war in Iraq had only strengthened the ranks of groups like Al Qaeda.

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"I think it's clear evidence that Bush's claim that we're fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them here was, and is, false," said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), chairwoman of the Homeland Security subcommittee on intelligence. "The threat here is increasing, and part of it relates to the strength of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which is a threat that postdates our military action in Iraq."

Other critics maintain that the administration released the new report at a politically strategic time: when Congress is debating the Iraq war and Bush is making a bid for increased funding for the war effort. The Chicago Tribune reports that White House officials contend that the NIE report supports the president's belief that Iraq is "the central front" in the war on terror.

"They are not averse to waving the red flag of Al Qaeda to say there is a big threat out there and to say we're working on it and we're the main agents of your safety," said Daniel Benjamin, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of "The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror," who added: "I can only assume that there was a big interest in getting this NIE out sooner than later, so that people could say they were aware of the threat, and then if anything happens the administration could say, 'We were on top of it.' "

White House aides and intelligence officials have blamed Al Qaeda's resurgence largely on the failure of Pakistan to police its tribal areas near the Afghan border. Last year Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, brokered a cease-fire agreement with tribal leaders, a move that was originally supported, or at least accepted, by Bush. Under the agreement, General Musharraf was supposed to withdraw government security forces from the region, and tribal leaders were supposed to police their own areas and stop cross-border raids into Afghanistan. The cease-fire agreement recently fell apart, and Musharraf will send troops into the tribal area again. However, observers are pessimistic about his ability to regain control of the region, reports The New York Times.

"We've seen in the past that he's sent people in and they get wiped out," said one senior official involved in the internal debate. "You can tell from the language today that we take the threat from the tribal areas incredibly seriously. It has to be dealt with. If he can deal with it, amen. But if he can't, he's got to build and borrow the capability."

Although analysts say that Pakistan's hands-off approach in the tribal areas has probably played the largest role in allowing Al Qaeda to rebuild, the Iraq war has also figured substantially in the development. The report says that Al Qaeda "will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of Al Qaeda in Iraq, its most visible and capable affiliate and the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the Homeland." The British Broadcasting Corp. reports that Iraq may have provided Al Qaeda with battle-hardened operatives to carry out missions within the US.

Questioned on whether the war in Iraq had provided an ideal training ground for terrorists, Ms. [Frances] Townsend, [Bush's homeland security adviser,] conceded that al-Qaeda might try to make use of its contacts in Iraq.
But she said extremists were also gaining experience in other places, such as Pakistan and North Africa.