WASHINGTON — The al Qaida terrorist network has rebounded and is at its greatest strength since it was expelled from Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, a new top-level U.S. intelligence assessment concludes, U.S. officials said Wednesday.
Calling al Qaida the most potent terrorist threat to U.S. national security, the classified draft makes clear that the Bush administration has been unable to cripple Osama bin Laden and the violent terror movement he founded.
The report is known as a National Intelligence Estimate, which is the highest level analysis produced by the U.S. intelligence community for the president and Congress. It represents the consensus of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies.
These conclusions were reflected in an unclassified report on global threats to U.S. security delivered Wednesday to the House Armed Services Committee, said U.S. officials, who spoke anonymously due to the intelligence issues involved.
Al Qaida's core leadership — a reference to bin Laden and his top aide, Ayman al Zawahri — is increasingly directing global terrorist operations from a haven in Pakistan's lawless tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, officials from the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in presenting the unclassified report.
"We actually see the al Qaida central being resurgent in their role in planning operations. They seem to be fairly well-settled into the safe haven and the ungoverned spaces of Pakistan there," John Kringen, the CIA's director for intelligence, said.
"We see more training, we see more money, and we see more communications," Kringen said.
Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, confirmed that the National Intelligence Estimate is due for completion this summer. He declined to discuss its contents.
The report has been in the works for some time "and is not a response to any specific threat," Feinstein said.
The U.S. intelligence community's assessment of the al Qaida threat comes as more bad news for President Bush.
Bush has repeatedly tried to cast the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq as part of the struggle against worldwide terrorism.
But many of the government's own counterterrorism analysts say the Iraq war has fueled anti-Western militancy and served as recruitment aid for bin Laden and like-minded Islamic extremists.
Over the last two weeks, Bush has cited the violence in Iraq perpetrated by a group calling itself al Qaida in Iraq. But that group wasn't present in Iraq before the March 2003 U.S. invasion, and there is no evidence it is under the control of bin Laden or his lieutenants.
Paul Pillar, a former top CIA official, said in an interview that al Qaida has seen "a partial strengthening of their position in South Asia."
That doesn't mean the group has fully reverted to its former strength, he said. "That's not the same as saying we're back to the way things were before September 11, 2001," Pillar said.
The intelligence analysts also stated in their congressional testimony — more bluntly than officials have before — that bin Laden and his closest aides are in Pakistan, ensconced in that country's rugged tribal areas bordering Pakistan.
"They continue to maintain active connections and relationships that radiate outward from their leaders hiding in Pakistan to affiliates throughout the Middle East, North and East Africa, and Europe," Thomas Fingar, deputy director for analysis in McConnell's office, said in written testimony prepared beforehand.
Previously, U.S. officials have said only that they suspect bin Laden is hiding in the remote border region. It is unclear whether Fingar's remarks reflect new intelligence data on the terrorist leader's location.
Appearing before the committee, Fingar spoke more vaguely of al Qaida leaders "hiding in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region."
Pakistan's role as a haven for al Qaida prompted pointed comments from committee members.
Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., complained that Pakistan's military regime refuses to allow U.S. forces to intervene militarily in the tribal areas. "That doesn't sound like a formula for success to me," Cooper said.
But Fingar warned that armed U.S. intervention could bolster the militants. "It is not too great an exaggeration to say there is some risk of turning a problem in northwest Pakistan into the problem of all of Pakistan," he said.
U.S. officials have said in recent weeks that there are growing indications of activity by al Qaida-linked terrorists. But they caution that there is no intelligence involving a specific threat to U.S. soil.
In remarks reported Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told the Chicago Tribune's editorial board that he believed "we are entering a period this summer of increased risk." Chertoff said his comments were based on a "gut feeling."