Scattered Al Qaeda Still A Threat?

al qaeda cells around world itching to cause trouble
U.S. intelligence officials believe that the thousands of al Qaeda followers who have graduated from terror training camps in Afghanistan will try to launch their own rudimentary but deadly attacks, The Washington Post reports in its Monday editions.

Al Qaeda's hierarchy has been significantly disrupted by the year-long war on terror, according to officials cited by the newspaper who it says are trying to assess the state of threat against the United States and targets abroad.

But the U.S. military's success in rousting al Qaeda from Afghanistan has had the unintended consequence of widely dispersing its adherents, determined to make jihad (holy war) on whatever scale they can muster, the Post reports.

Those fears were reinforced in recent days with the arrest in Germany of an al Qaeda follower and his American girlfriend for allegedly planning to bomb the U.S. Army's headquarters in Europe and the assassination attempt against Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the Post points out. That attempt followed by hours a car bombing in downtown Kabul that killed 12 people.

As the one-year anniversary of al Qaeda's attack on the Pentagon and World Trade Center approaches, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies have been detecting increased "chatter" or communications among known al Qaeda operatives, CBS News correspondent Jim Stewart reported late last week.

One senior official described the chatter to Stewart as "terrorist electronic and internet intercepts," some of which are in the form of morale boosting messages such as, "Stay tuned. Good news is on the way."

Much of the increased chatter is taking place in Afghanistan and began to spike in volume earlier this week. It suggests an impending attack against the U.S. or its allies, but contains no specifics, the officials say.

The increased communications are "less intense" than the ones that occurred around July 4, but are intense nonetheless, the officials add.

U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials tell the Post that, although another large-scale attack could be in the works, they are more immediately concerned about ad-hoc operations such as truck bombs, assassinations and suicide attacks by low-level operatives, especially against U.S. targets abroad.

"All the people who went to the training camps and have graduated -- not a lot is known about those individuals," a senior counterterrorism official is quoted by the Post as saying. "Those are the threats that we face inside the United States; those are the biggest threats outside the United States."

The FBI has opened several hundred investigations of people in this country who have gone through the camps or who have other links to al Qaeda, the Post reports. Firm estimates of the number of camp graduates are difficult to ascertain, but some experts put it at about 15,000. The number of sworn al Qaeda members is a fraction of that, the Post says.

With many of al Qaeda's fighters killed, detained or in hiding, the official said to the Post, the ones able to act are eager to let the world know they're alive. "It might be mid-level operatives in Africa or the Far East who says, 'We've got to do something to show we're still in business,' " he said.

U.S. intelligence officials say they are uncertain whether Osama bin Laden is dead, but they at the least believe his organization's upper ranks are in disarray, the Post reports.

Disruption at the top of the organization appears to be sowing confusion but not inaction, officials told the newspaper. From the local cells, an official said, "we hear things like: 'Are you sure this is what they want?'"

Military jets resumed round-the-clock patrols over New York and Washington Friday, said Lt. Col. Cathy Abbott, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

Officials hadn't planned on starting the patrols again until next week's 9/11 anniversary, reports CBS News correspondent Jim Stewart. They'll continue indefinitely.

But Stewart says the early resumption may be related to the increased chatter lately among al Qaeda operatives.