Al Qaeda is gaining strength and steadily improving its abilities to recruit, train and position operatives to mount attacks inside the United States, the top U.S. intelligence official told a Senate panel on Tuesday.
The official, Michael McConnell, director of national intelligence, told lawmakers that both Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, remained in control of the terror group and that Al Qaeda was improving “the last key aspect of its ability to attack the U.S.” – the recruiting of jihadis to attack American targets.
More Western recruits, he said, were traveling to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region for training.
McConnell also gave more details about Al Qaeda’s gathering strength in the mountains of Pakistan than appeared in a national intelligence assessment about the terrorism threat last summer.
Concern about Al Qaeda among American spies led top officials to travel to Pakistan in recent weeks to request permission for more unilateral American action in the tribal areas.
Still, McConnell’s somber tone hinted at more alarming developments in that rugged border zone than had been widely understood.
The report also said that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a group in Iraq that has sworn allegiance to the terror network, was beginning to export militants for attacks in other countries.
At the same hearing, General Michael Hayden, head of the CIA, confirmed the identities of three men who the agency taped as they were being waterboarded – an interrogation technique that simulates drowning.
Hayden said the men were Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the purported mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks; a senior Qaeda operative, Abu Zubaydah, and another suspected operative, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who is thought to be linked to the bombing of the U.S. naval ship Cole in 2000.
Hayden said they had been waterboarded in 2002 and 2003 because the CIA knew little about Qaeda operations and feared that “catastrophic attacks against the homeland were inevitable.”
Both those considerations, he said Tuesday, have since changed.
Attorney General Michael Mukasey, whose department is investigating the CIA’s destruction of the interrogation tapes, has refused to rule out future use of waterboarding. But McConnell, in his testimony, said that under new procedures, Hayden would need McConnell, Mukasey, and ultimately the president to sign off on any request to waterboard.
The warning of an improved Qaeda ability to attack America appeared to echo warnings contained in the intelligence estimate released last July, and to be based partly on the group’s growing ability to use its regenerated presence in the tribal regions of northwestern Pakistan to plan attacks elsewhere.
“While increased security measures at home and abroad have caused Al Qaeda to view the West, especially the U.S., as a harder target,” McConnell’s said in a 47-page report released Tuesday, “we have seen an influx of new Western recruits into the tribal areas since mid-2006.”
McConnell took heart from the fact that there had been no major terrorist attacks in much of the world in the past year, and he suggested that Al Qaeda’s global image was “beginning to lose some of its luster.”
“There was no major attack against the United States or most of our European, Latin American, East Asia allies and partners,” the report said.
McConnell noted the unraveling of terror plots in Germany and Denmark. And he ranked the recent killing in a missile attack in Pakistan of Abu Laith al-Libi, a senior Qaeda military commander, as the most serious blow to the group’s leadership since December 2005, when its external operations chief, Hamza Rabia, was killed.
Hayden also said that U.S. intelligence had led directly to “the foiling of a planned bombing in a crowded market in Southeast Asia last summer that would have led to mass casualties.”
But the report warned that Al Qaeda remained a serious threat. It also said that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a mostly homegrown group in Iraq that has sworn allegiance to the terror network, was beginning to export militants for attacks in other countries.
The report cited intelligence suggesting that fewer than 100 of the group’s militants had moved from Iraq to establish cells in other countries.
On North Korea, the intelligence analysts judged “with at least moderate confidence” that Pyongyang is continuing its uranium enrichment efforts and questioned its sincerity in ongoing disarmament negotiations.
But it said that the North “probably views its capabilities as being more for deterrence and coercive diplomacy than for war-fighting and would consider using nuclear weapons only under certain narrow circumstances.”
During the testimony, McConnell attempted to recalibrate the spy agencies’ view of Iran’s nuclear program, telling senators that the public portion of a National Intelligence Estimate released in December placed too much significance on Iran’s having halting secret work on nuclear weapons design in 2003.
On Tuesday, McConnell said weapons design was “probably the least significant part of the program” and that Iran’s refusal to halt uranium enrichment means it could still pose a nuclear threat.