Nearly 100 terrorist attacks, some intended to take place on U.S. soil, have been thwarted since September 11, 2001, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said. But he warns that many potential terrorists remain at large in the United States.
“We will be at war until we make certain that every member of al Qaeda is incapacitated in his or her ability to harm the United States,” Mr. Mueller said.
In a wide-ranging, almost hour-long interview in his seventh-floor conference room at FBI headquarters, Mr. Mueller also rejected proposals to shift counterintelligence duties from the FBI to a new agency. He said punishment is not the answer for mistakes by individual FBI agents before the September 11 attacks.
On terrorism, Mr. Mueller said “tens of attacks, probably close to a hundred around the world” have been stopped in the past 15 months. He credited better intelligence gathering and coordination, and information from al Qaeda detainees in custody, including those he described as architects of would-be attacks.
“There have been any number of attacks on ships that have been thwarted,” Mr. Mueller said. “Without getting into details, we have thwarted a number of attacks, both large and small.”
Asked if some of those attacks were aimed at U.S. targets, Mr. Mueller said: “Yes.”
He specifically mentioned Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen being held as an enemy combatant who authorities say was plotting to detonate a “dirty” radioactive bomb in the United States. Also cited were the arrests of members of a reported al Qaeda cell in Lackawanna, N.Y., and individuals in Portland, Ore., Seattle and elsewhere.
Mr. Mueller said it may take years to destroy al Qaeda and other terror groups, but he said the United States and its allies have the upper hand.
“I think we’re well on our way to winning the war, but the fact of the matter is, it is a war. Al Qaeda still has the capability of striking us,” he said.
The bureau, he said, is on the lookout for unconventional attacks, noting the 19 September 11 hijackers used only box cutters for weapons. “No explosives, no guns. Terrorists can operate in a number of ways. We need to continue to be alert, be vigilant,” he said.
The FBI believes there are several hundred people in the United States who are either potential terrorists, part of their financial or other support network, or whom authorities simply need to rule out as suspects.
These people are being tracked down by teams such as the new Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force, a part of the FBI’s broader transformation from an agency focused mainly on law enforcement to one whose priority is preventing terrorism, Mr. Mueller said.
That has included much improved technology, the reassignment of more than 500 agents to fight terrorism and the hiring of more than 330 linguists to translate such languages as Arabic and Pashtun.
There have been deadly bombings recently in Indonesia and Kenya and renewed threats against the United States in an audiotape attributed to Osama bin Laden. Mr. Mueller, however, said he saw no specific, credible intelligence heading into the holiday season that should lead the Bush administration to raise the nation’s terror alert from “elevated” status.