Al-Qaida may strike by week's end

CIA, FBI directors tell Senate panel of evidence from `multiple sources'

February 12, 2003|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In a chilling presentation before a Senate panel yesterday, CIA Director George J. Tenet described al-Qaida as a "resourceful, merciless" enemy and warned that the terrorist network may strike by week's end.

Appearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee with FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, Tenet said his agency has gathered the most compelling evidence yet from "multiple sources" that a plot may be in the works.

"The intelligence is not idle chatter on the part of terrorists and their associates," Tenet said. "It is the most specific we have seen, and it is consistent with both our knowledge of al-Qaida doctrine and our knowledge of plots this network - particularly its senior leadership - has been working on for years."

Tenet's comments were the most detailed on the subject since President Bush raised the threat warning last week from "elevated risk" to "high alert," setting in motion a series of stepped-up security measures nationwide.

Terrorist cells

Mueller added to the bleak outlook, testifying that the FBI believes there are several hundred extremists linked to al-Qaida - some organized into cells - living in the United States, not all of whom the bureau has located or identified.

Mueller said their activities seem to be focused on fund raising, recruitment and training. But, he added, these cells could be quickly mobilized to carry out actual terrorist operations. He said some of these groups may have been in the country since before the Sept. 11 attacks.

"The challenge of finding and rooting out al-Qaida members once they have entered the U.S. and have the time to establish themselves is our most serious intelligence and law enforcement challenge," Mueller said.

Tenet said the intelligence the CIA gathered that led to last week's elevated alert suggests that al-Qaida is aiming for targets within the United States and on the Arabian Peninsula.

He said the threat would probably include the use of "a dirty bomb" that expels radiological material when it explodes but added that al-Qaida is trying to obtain or develop other methods of attack including using surface-to-air missiles and underwater techniques to hit maritime targets.

"This latest reporting underscores the threat that the al-Qaida network continues to pose to the United States," Tenet said. "The network is extensive and adaptable. It will take years of determined effort to unravel this and other terrorist networks and stamp them out."

Tenet said an attack could be timed to coincide with the end of the Muslim hajj holy days, which conclude late this week.

It could probably also be directed at largely unprotected targets smaller in scale to those attacked Sept. 11, 2001, such as hotels and apartment buildings. He said al-Qaida is probably looking for any success, however small, to bolster the morale of its supporters.

Reforms detailed

Both Tenet and Mueller stressed that their organizations have changed in an effort to deal with the threat of another attack.

Mueller pointed to several bureau-wide transformations, including a computer system overhaul, the addition of hundreds of new agents and a new set of priorities that puts preventing terrorism above solving traditional crimes such as bank robberies.

In a heated exchange with Sen. John Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat, Mueller defended the FBI's efforts to reform itself. Despite that, Edwards told Mueller that he would like to see all of the bureau's intelligence-related functions pulled from the bureau and turned over to a separate agency.

Tenet emphasized the damage the United States has inflicted on al-Qaida, arresting more than 3,000 people, impairing its command structure and sending members on the run without a home base to operate out of.

Still, Tenet said, the threat continues, and he noted recent attacks in Mombasa, Kenya; Bali, Indonesia; Kuwait; and off the coast of Yemen. He said those attacks bore the signature of al-Qaida - intense surveillance, simultaneous strikes and explosives delivered by suicide bombers - calling cards U.S. intelligence officials are on the lookout for this week.

He said he believes the elevated alert could serve to disrupt al-Qaida plans by triggering enhanced security measures and encouraging citizen vigilance, possibly buying law enforcement precious time to try to find any plotters before they strike.

Guided by the increased threat level, state and local officials have increased security in cities and towns across the country, but they have warned that promised funding from the federal government has yet to materialize. Much of the funding is tied up in a catch-all spending bill that Congress seems close to completing.

Tenet also told the committee that he is concerned by intelligence reports that al-Qaida is establishing a presence in Iran and Iraq and is continuing to hide in the hinterlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"The bottom line here is that al-Qaida is living in the expectation of resuming the offensive," he said.

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