Al Qaeda's Comeback

Six years into President Bush's "war on terror," the U.S. intelligence community is warning that the al Qaeda terrorist network continues to be "a persistent and evolving" threat. "This threat is driven by an undiminished intent to attack the United States homeland," National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell said Tuesday.

The new warning reflects an assessment about the success of the group's top leaders, including Osama bin Laden, in rebuilding much of its capabilities to train operatives and plot attacks.

In many ways, the National Intelligence Estimate on the terrorist threat inside the United States that was released Tuesday is not all that new. It was first requested by the FBI and Homeland Security Department in 2004, and it has gone through a number of drafts. The key findings of the NIE, which represents the consensus judgment of the nation's 16 intelligence agencies, echo statements made by senior intelligence officials in recent months.

But the long-awaited NIE does complete a significant shift that U.S. intelligence agencies have made in their assessment of al Qaeda over the past 18 months, as U.S. News reported recently. Even last year, officials were still describing al Qaeda as an organization gravely damaged by U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan and the capture or killing of key operational lieutenants but that still remained an inspiration to other jihadists.

Today, while al Qaeda is not seen as being as capable as the organization that struck on Sept. 11, 2001, the group has reconstituted its ability to actively plot from its safe haven in the western tribal regions of Pakistan. Indeed, Pakistan's inability to root out these safe houses and training compounds is perhaps the most important factor in al Qaeda's revitalization. "The existence of the safe haven is critical to al Qaeda's capability to plan, to train, to organize," says Thomas Fingar , who chairs the National Intelligence Council, which produces NIEs.

Other key factors in al Qaeda's resurgence include the survival of bin Laden and his key deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the group's ability to recruit and train new lieutenants. These new operational commanders "appear to be coming off al Qaeda's bench" and have been associated with bin Laden for several years, says Ted Gistaro, the national intelligence officer for transnational threats and the chief author of the NIE.

U.S. intelligence agencies also have detected a coordinated recruitment effort by al Qaeda leaders to bring operatives with useful skills and languages into Pakistan to train them toward the eventual goal of their infiltrating the United States. "Although we have discovered only a handful of individuals in the United States with ties to al Qaeda's senior leadership since 9/11," the NIE says, "we judge that al Qaeda will intensify its efforts to put operatives here."

The NIE also warns that al Qaeda in Iraq, a formerly independent group that recently pledged its loyalty to bin Laden, remains the only affiliate group known to have publicly threatened to stage attacks inside the United States. But Gistaro said that an "overwhelming amount" of the group's resources are currently focused on attacks inside Iraq.

In a speech today, McConnell did say that there has been good news in the U.S. effort against al Qaeda, particularly the "relatively large number of plots we have been able to thwart" since 9/11. But he offered few details.

There is also an alarming description of the type of attack that al Qaeda's operatives are most interested in staging inside the United States. Unlike the kind of smaller-scale plots seen recently in Europe, such as subway bombings, U.S. intelligence agencies agree that al Qaeda wants its next U.S. attack to be a spectacular one. In particular, operatives want to focus on "prominent political, economic, and infrastructure targets with the goal of producing mass casualties, visually dramatc destruction, significant economic aftershocks, and/or fear among the U.S. population."

And there are other looming concerns. David Shedd, the deputy director of national intelligence for policy, plans, and requirements, says that U.S. intelligence has detected a more active connection between al Qaeda and its new North African affiliate, the al Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb, formerly known as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, or by its initials in French, GSPC. U.S. News wrote about this group when intelligence officials feared it was at the vanguard of a new wave of al Qaeda franchises and sympathizers.

Today, the two groups have a formal alliance, and Shedd says officials are seeing a "flow" of operatives traveling from North Africa (particularly Algeria and Morocco) to the tribal regions of Pakistan to undergo training at al Qaeda's new compounds. This flow is particularly worrying because al Qaeda's Maghreb group boasts long-standing networks in Europe that could theoretically be used to help operatives infiltrate the United States.

Also striking is the NIE's strong warning about the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, which has attacked U.S. targets overseas in the past but has been more focused on other targets in recent years. The NIE warns that Hezbollah, which reportedly receives arms and other support from Iran, "may be more likely to consider attacking the homeland over the next three years if it perceives the United States as posing a direct threat to the group or Iran."

The NIE is notable for one innovation: It is the first time such an estimate has been drafted with the full participation of both the FBI and Homeland Security Department, as well as other intelligence agencies.

By Kevin Whitelaw