U.S. intelligence calls al-Qaeda group in Yemen 'foremost concern'

Terror organization trying to recruit Westerners, Congress told

February 03, 2010|By Greg Miller | Tribune Newspapers

Al-Qaida's offshoot in Yemen has emerged as the "foremost concern" for U.S. spy agencies after the group was tied to two attacks in the United States last year, according to a sweeping new assessment of the global terrorist threat issued by the nation's top intelligence officer Tuesday.

Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair testified that American spy agencies have intensified surveillance of the al-Qaida affiliate's operations amid concern that the group - once considered a regional menace - is focused on the "recruitment of Westerners or other individuals with access to the U.S. homeland."

Officials also testified Tuesday that an elite interrogation team, created to replace a CIA program that President Barack Obama dismantled last year, is now operational and has been used to question some suspected terrorists overseas.

Blair's testimony came during an annual appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee that is designed to serve as a survey of threats. Among those highlighted Tuesday were the increasing pace and sophistication of efforts to penetrate U.S. computer systems, as well as the spread of nuclear technology and illicit weapons.

But the hearing was focused on vulnerabilities in the nation's intelligence apparatus exposed by a series of plots last year.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the committee, said that despite a growing list of national security concerns, "the top threat on everyone's mind is the heightened terrorism threat, especially against the U.S. homeland."

Al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemen-based offshoot is known, has been implicated in two of the most serious plots to surface in recent years. Blair said the group "directed" a plot aimed at taking down an airliner bound for Detroit on Christmas Day, providing training and explosives to a Nigerian who was subdued by other passengers on the aircraft after allegedly attempting to detonate a bomb he had smuggled aboard in his clothes.

AQAP, as the group is often called, also was tied to the shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, in November by an Army major who killed 13 people.

Lawmakers voiced frustration with the handling of both cases, particularly the failure to recognize a series of clues that preceded the Christmas Day plot, and the handling of the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, particularly the fact that FBI agents read him his Miranda rights.

Overall, officials said that al-Qaida remains resilient despite being weakened by a campaign of airstrikes by Predator drones in Pakistan.

The hearing also highlighted mounting concern among the U.S. intelligence community that the nation's computer networks are vulnerable to attack, concern heightened recently when the Google Internet search engine company accused China of seeking to penetrate sensitive e-mail accounts.

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