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Al Qaeda still a threat to U.S., intelligence chiefs say

The group's reputation has fallen in the Muslim world. But Western recruits who can more easily enter the US are being trained in Pakistan camps, intelligence officials say.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 8, 2008


When it comes to Al Qaeda's threat to the United States, recent months have brought both good and bad news, according to top US intelligence officials.

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The good news is that the reputation of Muslim extremists may be declining among some in the Islamic world. The brutal attacks on Muslim civilians by Al Qaeda's affiliate in Iraq appear to be affecting public opinion outside Iraq's borders.

"Al Qaeda has had difficulty in raising funds and sustaining itself," perhaps due to disaffection among Saudi Arabian contributors, said Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell at a House hearing Thursday.

The bad news is that a new influx of Western recruits – including American citizens – are being trained in Al Qaeda camps in Pakistan. These recruits would be able to more easily enter and move about the US than foreign operatives.

"Al Qaeda is improving the last key aspect of its ability to attack the US: the identification, training, and positioning of operatives for an attack on the homeland," wrote Mr. McConnell in prepared Congressional testimony.

There's no evidence that these recruits have already entered the US, added officials at Senate and House intelligence hearings this week.

So far, the principal terrorist threat within the US are self-radicalized individuals with no contact with any foreign terrorist leaders, FBI Director Robert Mueller told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on February 5.

The FBI rolled up two such native networks last year, he said, one intent on attacking John F. Kennedy airport, the other plotting against New Jersey's Fort Dix.

Europe has been the scene of the most recent attacks by individuals associated with the core Al Qaeda group, such as the bombs that hit the London transport network in July, 2005. "Our great concern is that, while it is happening in Europe, it is one plane ticket away from occurring in the United States," Mr. Mueller.

US security officials and experts outside government have long been concerned that a few Western recruits could give Al Qaeda a flexibility that has eluded it so far. Terrorists with US passports, able to easily melt back into American society, would be difficult for current homeland security measures to detect.