The release of a new report Tuesday that says Al Qaeda has reorganized to pre-9/11 strength and is preparing for a major US strike has sparked debate among government officials and observers about the Bush administration's foreign policy and counterterrorism efforts. The National Intelligence Estimate assessment indicates that the Islamic terrorist organization's rise has been bolstered by the Iraq war and the failure to counter extremism in Pakistan's tribal areas.
"The Terrorist Threat to the US Homeland" report focuses on the next three years and is the first report to review the potential for terrorist attacks exclusively in the United States, reports The Boston Globe. The nation's 16 intelligence agencies began compiling the report last October and completed their assessment in June. Though the report indicated that Hizbullah may become a threat if the US takes action against Iran or seriously threatens or attacks the Islamic organization, the majority of the report focused on the "rejuvenating effect the Iraq war has had on Al Qaeda."
For the last few years intelligence officials have suggested much of Al Qaeda's central leadership has been neutralized, and that the primary national security threat came from splinter groups [Osama] bin Laden inspired but doesn't command. Yesterday's assessment summary concludes that the same organization that meticulously planned and executed the September 11th attacks is alive and well.
"This clearly says Al Qaeda is not beaten," said Michael Scheuer , who formerly headed up the CIA's bin Laden search team.
Al Qaeda is preparing for a major strike against the US, reports the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). The terrorist organization has intensified efforts to insert operatives in the US, however, since the 9/11 attacks only a "handful" of senior operatives have been discovered inside the US. The NIE also indicates that Al Qaeda will deploy nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons if they can acquire them.
We assess that al-Qai'da's homeland plotting is likely to continue to focus on prominent political, economic, and infrastructure targets with the goal of producing mass casualties, visually dramatic destruction, significant economic aftershocks, and/or fear among the U.S. population. The group is proficient with conventional small arms and improvised explosive devices, and is innovative in creating new capabilities and overcoming security obstacles.
We assess that al-Qai'da will continue to try to acquire and employ chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear material in attacks and would not hesitate to use them if it develops what it deems is sufficient capability.
President Bush has defended his post-9/11 counterterrorism policies by citing the absence of new attacks on American soil and arguing that terrorists in Iraq present a greater challenge to US interests. The newly released report, however, has weakened President Bush's argument, reports The Washington Post.
[T]his line of defense seemed to unravel a bit yesterday with the release of a new National Intelligence Estimate that concludes that al-Qaeda "has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability" by reestablishing a haven in Pakistan and reconstituting its top leadership. The report also notes that al-Qaeda has been able "to recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for Homeland attacks," by associating itself with an Iraqi subsidiary.
These disclosures triggered a new round of criticism from Democrats and others who say that the administration took its eye off the ball by invading Iraq without first destroying Osama bin Laden's organization in Afghanistan.
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.
"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.