Feds See Imminent Terror Threat

CIA Director George Tenet, left, testifies, as and FBI Director Robert Mueller, background, watches Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2003, before the Senate Intelligence Committee in Washington AP

The al Qaeda terrorist network remains a "resourceful, merciless" foe dedicated to committing more attacks against the United States and its interests around the world, the head of the FBI told Congress Tuesday.

In a joint appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Robert Mueller and CIA Director George J. Tenet painted a chilling portrait of a fanatical enemy that seeks to use chemical, biological and radiological weapons against Americans and might target lightly guarded places such as shopping malls or universities.

Tenet said intelligence points to attacks that could occur this week — coinciding with the Muslim hajj holy days — possibly using a "dirty bomb" that spews out radiological material. The United States and U.S. interests on the Arabian peninsula appear to be at greatest risk, he said.

"The network is extensive and adaptable," Tenet said. "It will take years of determined effort to unravel this and other terrorist networks and stamp them out."

The testimony came 17 months to the day since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in Washington, New York and Pennsylvania that are blamed on al Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden. More than 3,000 people died in those attacks.

As the directors testified, Secretary of State Colin Powell said he had seen a transcript of a new message that appeared to be from bin Laden, although that was not certain. In the message, the voice tentatively identified as bin Laden's expresses solidarity with Iraq.

The appearance by Mueller and Tenet also coincided with a recent upgrading of the national terrorist threat level from "elevated" to "high."

Even though al Qaeda's refuge in Afghanistan has been disrupted, Tenet said the group continues to have a presence there, as well as in Pakistan, Iran and Iraq. Al Qaeda, he said, "is living in the expectation of resuming the offensive."

Tenet also said that the CIA has turned over information to the United Nations on all major suspicious weapons of mass destruction sites within Iraq.

There have been many successes in the war on terror, Tenet and Mueller said. More than 3,000 suspected terrorists or sympathizers have been detained and the number of countries involved in the apprehensions is now 100, Tenet said. Equally important is the "trove of information" the United States has gleaned from these captives, he said.

In this country, Mueller said, the FBI suspects there are "several hundred" Muslim extremists that focus mainly on fund-raising, recruitment and training. But he said the greatest threat to Americans at home are "al Qaeda cells in the United States that we have not identified."

Some of these cells, he added, have probably been in the United States since well before Sept. 11.

"The enemies we face are resourceful, merciless and fanatically committed to inflicting massive damage on our homeland, which they regard as a bastion of evil," Mueller said. "In this war, there can be no compromise or negotiated settlement."

Mueller listed a number of ways terrorists could strike, including poisoning of food and water supplies using cyanide, botulism or ricin — a castor-based poison recently uncovered in a London-based plot. Terrorists could strike at computer systems, or they could assault U.S. railroads, aircraft, oil and gas facilities or power grids, Mueller said.

In addition, he said the FBI remains concerned about potential threats from other Islamic extremist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas — both of which Mueller said appear most interested in continuing their U.S.-based fund-raising networks rather than using violence.

Both Mueller and Tenet said their agencies are far better prepared to detect and prevent terrorists than they were prior to the 2001 attacks. The new Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman, Republican Pat Roberts of Kansas, said he also is seeing signs of improvement.

"Whatever problems may have existed before," he said, "the intelligence community today is a very different place than it was before."

But Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., said he is not persuaded that the FBI can handle counterterrorism and counterintelligence duties and said he will introduce legislation to move those duties from the bureau to a new agency.

"The FBI's effort at reform is too little, too late," Edwards said.

Mueller invited Edwards to visit FBI headquarters for a firsthand look at the changes in the works.

The unclassified portion of the hearing ended after more than two hours of testimony. Mueller and Tenet were to give the committee a classified briefing on terrorism later in the day.

Evidence of al Qaeda's capabilities was demonstrated, officials say, by the October nightclub bombing in Bali, Indonesia, that killed almost 200 people and November attacks in Kenya on an Israeli resort that left 15 dead. Many more would have died in the Kenya attack had two shoulder-fired missiles not missed a charter jetliner as it took off to take home a planeload of Israeli tourists.

  • Lloyd Vries

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