Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Al Qaeda terrorists continue to plan and train for a major attack against the United States, but so far, there are no signs that the group’s extremists have infiltrated into the country, senior U.S. security and intelligence officials told Congress yesterday.

“They have committed leadership that can adapt. They have safe haven for training. They have middle management for organization and training and preparation. The thing they need the most are operations personnel,” retired Vice Adm. Michael McConnell, director of national intelligence, told a Senate hearing.

“We watch them recruit. We watch them bring them to Pakistan, that border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan, … to train them in things like liquid explosives and so on, so the intent is clear,” he said. “They have not yet been successful infiltrating back in the United States.”

Targets include U.S. political, economic and infrastructure elements “with the goal of producing mass casualties, visually dramatic destruction and significant economic shocks,” Mr. McConnell said.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said al Qaeda remains determined to carry out attacks against the United States “preferably in the homeland” or overseas.

“I think they are looking both to develop operatives who they can launch from overseas; they’re also, I think, hoping to radicalize those within this country,” Mr. Chertoff said. “They’ve been less successful in the latter respect here than they have in Europe, but it is a growing issue.”

The two officials appeared before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee with National Counterterrorism Center Director John Scott Redd, a retired vice admiral, and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III.

Mr. McConnell said al Qaeda has been successful in “linking” different groups in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon and other areas into affiliates.

Once splintering, the safe haven that al Qaeda found in the ungoverned border between Afghanistan and Pakistan have allowed the group to “adapt and morph,” he said.

“With sanctuary and committed leadership, they’ve rebuilt the middle tier,” he said. “What they don’t have are the vast numbers of recruits to carry out the acts they would like to perpetrate. So that’s where we have our focus, is to try to cut off the head of the snake” — a reference to efforts to kill or capture al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri.

Al Qaeda has regained a “significant level” of its capability since the September 11 attacks but is not as strong, he said.

Mr. Redd said U.S. counterterrorism efforts are focused on “taking the fight to the enemy,” a strategy that he said has been successful.

“Thousands of terrorists have been taken off the field of battle, and dozens of plots have been disrupted.”

He warned that despite the successes, “we must anticipate that there will be setbacks along the way.”

Mr. Mueller said the FBI has a “tremendous concern” that al Qaeda will “insert” terrorists trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan into the United States. Loosely affiliated but less well-trained terrorist groups also are a worry, he said.

“With those two groups, the biggest concern we have is those coming in from Europe who may have been trained and be inserted either by core al Qaeda or undertake attacks in the United States without the planning or financial backing of core al Qaeda,” Mr. Mueller said.

Mr. McConnell said that U.S. electronic eavesdropping on foreign terrorists helped German authorities thwart recent al Qaeda plans to bomb U.S. military facilities with a home-made explosive.

Asked about the recent video message from bin Laden, Mr. McConnell said “so far we do not think there’s been a signal” to launch another major attack.

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