Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Al Qaeda remains a major threat despite the death last week of the terrorist group’s leader in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi, U.S. counterterrorism officials told the Senate yesterday.

“Eliminating Zarqawi is clearly a major step forward, but both al Qaeda and [al Qaeda in Iraq] will continue with their deadly work,” said retired Vice Adm. John Scott Redd, director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC).

Adm. Redd also said other Sunni extremist groups inspired by al Qaeda are expanding from regional organizations into a global network that may target U.S. interests.

Adm. Redd, noting that Osama bin Laden has been able to stay alive by hiding in a remote region of the world, said al Qaeda’s central leadership has been dealt “very serious blows” that have diminished its operations significantly.

Asked about the effect of stopping bin Laden, Adm. Redd said: “I think if he were to be taken out, we would see a very strong effect in terms of the symbolic effect. …

“But also it would be significant, I think, in terms of the effect on jihadists worldwide, but it probably would not have a major effect on operations,” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Henry Crumpton, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, said the death of Zarqawi, who was killed in a U.S. bombing raid in Iraq on June 7, does not lessen the threat of al Qaeda in Iraq and regionally.

Asked by Committee Chairman Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican, about a recent terrorist attempt to bomb Saudi Arabian oil fields, Mr. Crumpton said terrorists are trying to attack such economic targets to “disrupt the oil supplies.”

There is still “a long way to go” before oil fields in Saudi Arabia, West Africa and other parts of the world are secure from terrorist attacks, Mr. Crumpton said.

On whether Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence is continuing to support the ousted Islamist Taliban regime and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, he said that there are indications that some provincial governments in Pakistan are providing backing, but that there is no “hard intelligence” linking Islamabad to such efforts.

“I am not confirming that ISI is clean,” he said. “I am saying that we don’t have any compelling evidence right now that points to this.”

Mr. Crumpton said there also is concern about Islamists taking control of some parts of Mogadishu, Somalia, a country largely without a central government.

Adm. Redd said the recent arrests in Canada of 17 persons suspected of plotting a major terrorist attack highlight the “home-grown” terrorist problem.

Additionally, the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah remains a potent threat, he said. Direct Iranian terrorism, he noted, also is a major concern.

Adm. Redd said he is “guardedly optimistic” about the long-term outlook of battling Islamic extremists.

“I believe it’s no accident that we have not been attacked since 9/11 here at home,” he said, noting, “We certainly cannot assume that we won’t be attacked again.”

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