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

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.

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.

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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.

Over the years, the group has lost its Afghanistan training camps, and much of its senior leadership, including key operational planners. But Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants have been able to retreat to the sanctuary of Pakistan's wild border areas, while drawing on a bench of skilled operatives to replace members that have been killed or captured.

"It's an immensely adaptive organization," says William C. Martel, an associate professor of international security studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

Recruitment of disaffected Americans would fit right in with Al Qaeda's style, says Mr. Martel. But such a move could also backfire on the group's central leadership, he says.

Until now, the Central Intelligence Agency has found the terror group difficult to infiltrate, due to its cellular structure and its reliance on natives from Islamic lands. If Al Qaeda is opening its doors to Westerners, however, it could potentially be more open to penetration by western spies.

"It could make it easier for us to understand what they're doing, and why," says Martel.

As to its affiliate group, Al Qaeda in Iraq, this has been a year of major setbacks, with hundreds of its members killed and facilities destroyed.

The brutality of the group's methods has even earned it rebukes from Al Qaeda's top leaders, hiding out in Pakistan. US officials claim that Sunni Muslims throughout the world have been repulsed by the group's attacks on Iraqi Sunni tribes that had switched to aiding the US effort.

"Are we reaching a tipping point, where we'll see a decline in this radical [Islamist] behavior? " asked McConnell at the hearing. "We don't know yet. We're watching it very closely."

The group's ability to reconstitute and retain a base of operations in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) has been a major setback to counterterror efforts, admit intelligence officials. The FATA has given the group many of the advantages it once took from its bases in Afghanistan. The region has served as a staging area for Al Qaeda attacks in Afghanistan, as well as a base for training operations.

Pakistan remains in political turmoil following the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Its security forces are thought to number many Al Qaeda and Taliban supporters.

Still, Pakistani intelligence officials have shown increasing determination to strengthen their counterterror performance, McConnell said. They have realized the stakes of the struggle, he said, since the number of Pakistani civilians and soldiers killed in 2007 by terrorist attacks equaled the total of those killed in the six previous years.

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