Al Qaeda terrorists are rebuilding their capabilities and continuing to plan mass-casualty attacks inside the United States, according to an intelligence assessment made public yesterday.
"We assess [al Qaeda] has protected or regenerated key elements of its homeland attack capability, including a safe haven in ... Pakistan [tribal areas], operational lieutenants and its top leadership," according to the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), a consensus analysis of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies.
"Although we have discovered only a handful of individuals in the United States with ties to al Qaeda senior leadership since 9/11, we judge that al Qaeda will intensify its efforts to put operatives here," the report stated.
Retired Vice Adm. Michael McConnell, the director of national intelligence whose office produced the NIE, said the United States will face a "persistent and evolving terrorist threat" in the next three years.
The seven-page public summary of the classified report said the United States is in a "heightened threat environment."
"They're working as hard as they can in positioning trained operatives here in the United States," Mr. McConnell said. "They have recruitment programs to bring recruits into [the tribal] region of Pakistan [who] could come to the United States, fit into the population and then use some of the training that they receive in the Pakistani area for explosives and so on."
Edward Gistaro, the national intelligence officer for transnational threats and chief drafter of the NIE, said al Qaeda's efforts to recruit, train and deploy operatives in the United States is a "disturbing trend."
"We do not see al Qaeda cells here in the United States, but we do believe the organization has the capability to intensify its efforts to try and do that," he said.
The group also will try to link up with less organized regional terrorist organizations, notably al Qaeda in Iraq. The analysis stated that the Iraq war is providing a recruiting ground and propaganda vehicle for al Qaeda.
Frances Fragos Townsend, a White House counterterrorism official, said the NIE reinforces the danger of a major terrorist attack.
"We are facing a persistent terrorist enemy, led by al Qaeda, that remains driven and intent on attacking the homeland, and that continues to adapt and improve its capabilities," Mrs. Townsend said, adding that there are no signs of an imminent attack.
"It is deeply troubling that more that nearly six years after 9/11, al Qaeda maintains a safe haven, an intact leadership and the capability to plan further attacks," said Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat and 2008 presidential candidate. "It is time to act to correct those mistakes, and the first step is to get out of Iraq, because you can't win a war when you're on the wrong battlefield."
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said the NIE shows that the United States must keep up the fight against terrorists.
"Retreat is not a 'new way forward' when the safety and security of future generations of Americans are at stake," Mr. Boehner said.
President Bush said U.S. counterterrorism efforts have weakened al Qaeda.
"Al Qaeda would have been a heck of a lot stronger today had we not stayed on the offense," the president said after meeting yesterday with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
According to the intelligence estimate, targets in the United States include "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."
Additionally, the group that carried out the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, killing nearly 3,000 people, has not given up its desire to develop unconventional weapons.
"We assess that al Qaeda 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," the report stated.
The pro-Iranian Lebanese Hezbollah terrorist group also poses a threat and could conduct attacks in the United States "if it perceives the United States as posing a direct threat to the group or Iran," the report stated.
Two new dangers identified in the report are the spread of radical "Salafist" groups that use the Internet to promote anti-U.S. rhetoric and actions and the growth in "self-generating cells" of terrorists in Western nations.
The report said that these are signs that "the radical and violent segment of the West's Muslim population is expanding, including in the United States."
Recent U.S. cases of Islamist plots against Fort Dix, N.J., and John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York are indications of a growing global extremist movement that "points to the possibility that others may become sufficiently radicalized that they will view the use of violence here as legitimate," the report said.
However, it also stated that "we assess that this internal [U.S.] Muslim terrorist threat is not likely to be as severe as it is in Europe."