U.S. intelligence agencies concluded recently that al Qaeda — fearing its credibility is on the line — is moving ahead with plans for a major, “spectacular” attack, despite disruptions of some operations by recent arrests in Britain and Pakistan.
Officials said recent intelligence assessments of the group, which is blamed for the September 11 attacks, state that an attack is coming and that the danger will remain high until the Nov. 2 elections and last until Inauguration Day on Jan. 20.
“They [al Qaeda] think their credibility is on the line because there hasn’t been a major attack since 9/11,” said one official familiar with intelligence reports on the group.
A second official said: “There isn’t reason to believe that the recent arrests have disrupted their plans.”
Authorities in Pakistan and Britain recently arrested key al Qaeda leaders, but the group uses tight “compartmentation” of its operations. The process, used by intelligence services, keeps information about operations within small “cells” of terrorists to protect secrecy.
Thus, details of the possible attack remain murky, but analysts say it is planned to be bigger and deadlier than the September 11 attacks, which killed 3,000 people.
Potential targets include the White House, Pentagon, U.S. Capitol and congressional buildings, as well as landmarks and business centers in New York, the officials said. The officials said that there is no specific information about targets.
Intelligence officials say a key figure in al Qaeda’s North American operations is Adnan Shukrijumah, who is being sought by the FBI for the past several years.
One official said Shukrijumah recently was seen in Mexico and earlier had been in Canada near a university with a nuclear reactor, leading to concerns that he was seeking radioactive material for a radiological bomb.
The Mexican newspaper Proceso, quoting Mexican officials, reported earlier this month that Shukrijumah was being sought in northeastern Mexico after being tracked to Sonora in August.
Acting CIA Director John McLaughlin told a Senate hearing last month that al Qaeda’s ability to keep its operations secret is a “strategic weapon.”
Mr. McLaughlin told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the group “compartments secrets down to a handful of people in a cave somewhere.”
“It’s very well-documented in the 9/11 report how few people knew about that,” he said Aug. 17. “They use secrecy as a strategic weapon. It’s a strategic weapon for them because it asymmetrically works against us because we don’t keep secrets very well.”
Several key arrests of al Qaeda members were made over the past several months in Britain and Pakistan.
One major intelligence “break” was the arrest in June of Musaad Aruchi, who was captured in Karachi. Aruchi was a senior al Qaeda member who provided information that led to other key arrests within weeks.
The arrest of Aruchi, a nephew of September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, provided U.S. and Pakistani intelligence and security officials with information that led to further arrests, including that of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian linked by U.S. intelligence to the August 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Along with Ghailani, U.S. and Pakistani authorities also arrested another al Qaeda member, Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, a Pakistani, who was picked up in Lahore on July 13.
Khan was seized along with a laptop computer that had information on al Qaeda planning and operations.
The computer did not contain specific information about plans for a major attack in the United States, but the information did lead to the raising of the national terrorism alert levels in Washington and New York.
Eisa al-Hindi, an al Qaeda leader in Britain, was arrested after the arrest of Khan. Al-Hindi was arrested in London Aug. 3 along with 12 other suspected al Qaeda members.