Extremists using Internet to plot, Gonzales says

Over 5,000 Web sites, attorney general warns

August 17, 2006|By JOSH MEYER | JOSH MEYER,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Attorney Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales said yesterday that Islamic extremists take advantage of more than 5,000 Web sites to train and coordinate internationally, filling the gap caused by the crackdown on the al-Qaida terrorist network.

He also rebutted the implied criticism circulating in recent days that the United States somehow prompted British authorities to move prematurely against a London-area cell allegedly planning attacks on multiple airliners with homemade liquid bombs.

Gonzales' Web site estimate suggests a significant expansion of the Internet infrastructure used by Islamic extremists in recent years to mobilize their efforts against Western interests. Several counterterrorism officials inside and outside the U.S. government said they were not familiar with the specific numbers quoted by the nation's top law enforcement official, but added that they, too, have seen a drastic increase in the use of the Internet by Islamic extremists.

Since late 2001, the United States and its allies have demolished al-Qaida's home base in Afghanistan, killed or captured some of its leaders, cut off many outside funding channels and disrupted some means of communication.

But by doing so, they drove the organization to the Internet, "where their ideology has inspired and radicalized others," Gonzales said in a speech to the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh.

"There are between 5,000 and 6,000 extremist Web sites on the Internet, each one encouraging extremists to cultivate relationships with like-minded people," he said. "This radicalization is happening online and can therefore develop anywhere, in virtually any neighborhood, and in any country."

Militants radicalized on the Internet might be more dangerous than those trained by al-Qaida in its terrorist camps in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11 attacks, Gonzales said.

"These are the home-grown terrorists that you have heard about," he said, referring to the alleged plot disrupted in Britain and to other recent plots and attacks by al-Qaida sympathizers.

Gonzales said radicalization is also occurring in academic settings, mosques, community centers and - of particular and growing concern - in prisons.

In an appearance later yesterday on CNN's The Situation Room, Gonzales said that the FBI continues to pursue tendrils of the British investigation in the United States.

"There have been a number of tips and leads that tie to the United States, and that's why we have had over 200 FBI agents involved in following up on every tip and every lead," he said. "We're not aware of a plot here in the United States, but we're not prepared also to say that we've ended this threat."

In his speech in Pittsburgh, Gonzales said last week's disruption of the alleged bomb plot came as a result of both countries cross-training their prosecutors and sharing information and sensitive intelligence.

Gonzales also said that both Britain and the United States favored stopping terrorists before they could act, even if that meant ultimately losing convictions in court.

"Simply put, we need to gather enough information and evidence during our investigations to ensure a successful prosecution," he said. "But we absolutely cannot wait too long, allowing a plot to develop to its deadly fruition."

A senior Justice Department official said Gonzales was referring to the British case, specifically refuting allegations that U.S. officials pressured their counterparts overseas into rounding up the suspects before they were ready.

"What you see the AG saying in this speech is that there is no schism between the philosophies of the two countries as to when to take down a plot," said the senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity given the international aspects of the British-led investigation.

"I don't believe the plot was taken down because of American pressure. This was a British-run operation. As far as I know, there was little difference of opinion in this case on when to take down the plotters," the official said.

Asked whether the United States pressured Pakistan into arresting one of the suspects on its soil, forcing British authorities to scramble to detain other members, the official said: "I'm just not comfortable talking about the Pakistan end of this. That doesn't mean the U.S. leaned on the Pakistanis. We just don't want to discuss operational aspects of the investigation."

Josh Meyer writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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