Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Despite statements by senior al Qaeda leaders, U.S. intelligence agencies do not have information indicating the group is ready to conduct a major attack, U.S. counterterrorism officials said.

The audio and video statements appear to be part of a propaganda campaign by the terrorist group to bolster morale in its ranks, the officials said.

Intelligence officials said al Qaeda has been damaged since the beginning of the global war on terrorism in 2001 but remains capable of a major attack.

John D. Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, and senior intelligence officials are scheduled to testify today before the Senate as part of an annual threat briefing. Mr. Negroponte will highlight the continuing but changing threat posed by al Qaeda, which U.S. intelligence officials regard as the most serious national security challenge to the nation.

However, there are no signs of an impending attack like the hijacked airline strikes on the Pentagon and World Trade Center that killed almost 3,000 people on September 11, 2001, the officials said.

The officials discussed, on the condition of anonymity, the analysis of an audio statement by Osama bin Laden and a subsequent video from his key deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri.

Bin Laden said in an audio message broadcast by Arab satellite television station Al Jazeera on Jan. 19 that an attack “is being prepared and you’ll see it in your homeland very soon.”

Eleven days later, al-Zawahri appeared in a videotaped message, also broadcast on Al Jazeera, saying that the “truce” offered by bin Laden had been rejected because of a Jan. 13 U.S. air strike that killed several top al Qaeda leaders but missed al-Zawahri.

Al-Zawahri said in the message Monday that al Qaeda would conduct further attacks on the United States.

A U.S. intelligence official said no hard intelligence relates to the al Qaeda statements and nothing indicates that the group is set to carry out an attack.

“Not every tape that comes out has been followed by an attack,” the official said. “However, when they make these kinds of statements, you have to take them seriously.”

This official said al Qaeda, and specifically its leadership, has been “damaged” by U.S. efforts, including the captures and killings of numerous top leaders.

“There has been a great erosion of the leadership, but al Qaeda does remain a danger and has [attack] capabilities,” the official said.

The official noted that other groups that are “inspired” by al Qaeda have formed and may have “faint” ties or no links to “al Qaeda central” — the group led by bin Laden and al-Zawahri.

A second official said bin Laden’s offer of a truce and al-Zawahri’s statements against U.S. leaders are part of “a propaganda ploy” designed to “buck up the morale of the rank and file” and prove they are still alive.

“It’s also part of an effort to make the United States and Pakistan appear ineffective” in the war on terrorism, the official said.

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