U.S. intelligence and security officials yesterday said new information indicates that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has asked Iraq-based terrorists to focus future attacks on targets inside the United States.
Recent intelligence reports showed that bin Laden contacted Abu Musab Zarqawi, al Qaeda’s senior operative in Iraq, and urged Islamists there to shift from attacking U.S. targets in that country to targets in the United States, said officials familiar with the reports.
A U.S. official said there was no specific time or place mentioned in bin Laden’s message to Zarqawi. There are no plans to raise the color-coded threat level from “elevated,” or yellow, to “high,” or orange, officials said.
“This credible but nonspecific information restates al Qaeda’s desire to potentially target the homeland,” said Brian Roehrkasse, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.
The department last weekend sent out a classified bulletin to state and local security officials regarding recent information on the threat. The bulletin was based on a communique between al Qaeda leaders about expanding “operations outside of Iraq with an inference that the United States would be the primary target.”
The disclosure about the shift in targets, first reported by Fox News Channel, reveals that the U.S. government has been able to track al Qaeda communications. The group is thought to communicate through couriers and the Internet.
It also shows that a major attack on the United States aimed at rivaling the September 11 strikes is still a danger.
CIA Director Porter J. Goss told a Senate hearing last month that al Qaeda is planning to target U.S. territory and that Islamic extremists are using the Iraq war to recruit anti-U.S. “jihadists,” or holy warriors.
“These jihadists who survive will leave Iraq experienced in and focused on acts of urban terrorism,” Mr. Goss said. “They represent a potential pool of contacts to build transnational terrorist cells, groups and networks in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other countries.”
Mr. Goss said Zarqawi is intent on bringing “the final victory of Islam over the West, and he hopes to establish a safe haven in Iraq from which his group could operate against ‘infidel’ Western nations and ‘apostate’ Muslim governments.”
Meanwhile, the U.S.-backed coalition has nabbed more than a dozen senior leaders of Iraq’s deadly insurgency in recent weeks, but the enemy has a deep bench of planners and jihadists who seem able to keep up a pace of 40 or more attacks daily, according to U.S. officials and outside analysts.
The string of arrests was highlighted Sunday. The Iraqi interim government announced the capture of its biggest target since the U.S. Army apprehended former dictator Saddam Hussein in December 2003. Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hassan, Saddam’s half brother, was among scores of Ba’ath Party loyalists jailed in Iraq after being arrested in Syria, where they had been directing and financing terror attacks.
But U.S. officials said the number of Saddam loyalists willing to kill Iraqis and coalition troops is still sufficient to carry out attacks for months, if not years. When Baghdad fell to the U.S. invasion in April 2003, intelligence agencies estimated that there were 20,000 senior Ba’ath Party members. That number, coupled with 40,000 criminals freed by Saddam and thousands of ex-Iraq army troops still loyal to Saddam, creates a huge pool from which to draw insurgents and terrorists.
“They don’t know. One surprise after another,” said a defense source in Washington about intelligence estimates of the insurgency and terrorists.
The source said there are scores of other Iraqi Ba’athists operating in Syria.
The terrorists’ ability to operate in most areas of Iraq was demonstrated yesterday in the Shi’ite town of Hillah. A suicide car bomb killed more than 115 Iraqis applying for government jobs, in the worst attack since Saddam was ousted.
“The insurgency in Iraq, as insurgencies are classically defined and assessed for accomplishing their goals, has been far more successful than most imagined it would, or could be,” said Dan Gallington, a former aide to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and now an analyst at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.
“What the insurgents fear is a series of Fallujah-type operations,” he said. “Why we are not obliging them is not clear. But I would suspect that our joint-combined Iraqi-U.S. strike units are riddled with spies and informants and that such operations are impossible to conduct with even the slightest degree of operational security.”
The militants in Iraq essentially come in two groups: Sunni Muslim Ba’athist insurgents such as al-Hassan and their paid attackers, and foreign jihadists and suicide bombers led by Zarqawi. A Zarqawi car bomber likely pulled off the Hillah attack yesterday.
Before the historic Jan. 30 elections, the Iraqi government announced the capture of a handful of Zarqawi’s top people, including Salah Suleiman al-Loheibi, who ran the terror group’s Baghdad cell.
“I think the arrests have had an effect on them,” said Robert Maginnis, a retired Army officer and military analyst. “You’re taking experience off the streets, and that’s going to hurt them.”
Such arrests also result in a flood of new intelligence information on Zarqawi’s group, al Qaeda in Iraq. Iraqi authorities say they have come within hours of catching Zarqawi as he moves from town to town.
“I am encouraged by recent arrests of insurgents, especially if the arrests are based on information brought forward by real citizens and not competing insurgents who want us to help them eliminate rivals,” Mr. Gallington said.