Al Qaeda-linked groups around the world are growing dangers, recruiting a new generation of terrorists, many with Western passports who can infiltrate the United States or Europe for deadly, small-scale attacks, U.S. intelligence chiefs warned Congress on Tuesday.
Islamic extremists inspired by al Qaeda are well-established in Yemen and Somalia and are emerging in countries such as Nigeria, CIA Director David H. Petraeus told a joint hearing of the Senate and House intelligence committees.
These affiliate groups “have their own command structures, resource bases and operational agendas, and they largely operate autonomously,” he said.
Many of their recruits have Western passports and backgrounds that “make them well-suited for targeting the United States and Europe,” Mr. Petraeus said.
Al-Shabab in southern Somalia is “large and well-funded,” and the lawless East African nation is now “one of the world’s most significant havens for terrorists,” Mr. Petraeus said.
His warnings were given weight by the weekend arrest of four men in Sweden, charged with plotting a terrorist attack in the city of Gothenburg. The suspects, three of whom are naturalized Swedish citizens, are linked to al-Shabab, according to Swedish media reports.
Mr. Petraeus added that al Qaeda affiliates also are emerging in Nigeria, where the extremist group Boko Haram staged a deadly suicide bomb attack on the U.N. headquarters in Abuja last month in its “first known lethal operation against Westerners.”
“Despite being less able to coordinate large-scale attacks, al Qaeda and its sympathizers do continue to train and deploy operatives in small numbers for overseas plots relatively small attacks that would nonetheless generate fear and create the need for costly security improvements,” he said.
In al Qaeda’s homeland on the mountainous and remote Afghanistan-Pakistan border, however, there is a “window of vulnerability” for the core organization, after the killing of Osama bin Laden and two other top leaders this year and the arrest of one of the group’s military commanders in Pakistan last week, Mr. Petraeus said.
“These setbacks have shaken al Qaeda’s sense of security in Pakistan’s tribal areas,” he said.
Its leaders have been killed or imprisoned, and the group now “is largely focused on rebuilding,” he said. Jemaah Islamiyah was responsible for the Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005.
Although the campaign against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan will continue with “energy, focus, creativity and dedication for quite a while,” Mr. Petraeus said, operations against its affiliates elsewhere would rely on the cooperation of U.S. allies.
“Working with our local partners to cooperate against these affiliates will continue to be crucial to the success of our overall efforts,” he said.
James Clapper, director of national intelligence (DNI), raised what he called “the inevitability of budget cuts in the intelligence community,” referring to the sprawling collection of 16 agencies of which he is the titular head.
“I don’t want anyone to be under the mistaken impression that we are going to sustain all the [intelligence] capabilities we have today, because we’re not,” he said.
However, he added, “everything we do in intelligence is not of equal merit” and his job will be to set priorities.
“We have to be rather cold-hearted and objective about the real contribution the various systems make,” he said. “So that’s kind of the approach we’re going to take.”
He called the process “a litmus test for this [DNI] office, to preside over these inevitable cuts that we’re going to have to make.”
“I am reasonably confident that we can come through this without a great deal of harm,” he added.
Mr. Petraeus said the CIA inspector-general had begun an internal investigation into the agency’s close cooperation with New York police in undercover operations in the city’s Muslim community after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The operations involved surveillance at more than 250 mosques and Islamic student groups.
Mr. Petraeus told lawmakers that the investigation opened before he took office, at the request of acting director Michael Morell. The agency wants “to make sure we are doing the right thing,” he said.
The CIA is barred by presidential order from collecting intelligence about Americans.