WASHINGTON — Al Qaida is still plotting a major attack on the United States and will "probably" use its Iraqi affiliate, a combat-tested terrorist group that sprang up after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, to carry it out, a new U.S. intelligence report warned Tuesday.
The National Intelligence Estimate made it clear that Osama bin Laden's militant Islamic network, bolstered by the Iraq war and growing anti-U.S. anger in the Muslim world, remains a potent danger nearly six years after President Bush launched his "Global War on Terror" in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The United States faces "a persistent and evolving terrorist threat over the next three years," said the NIE, an authoritative analysis representing the consensus of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies.
"We assess that al Qaida's Homeland plotting is likely to continue to focus on prominent political, economic and infrastructure targets with the goal of producing mass casualties, visually dramatic destruction, significant economic aftershocks, and/or fear among the U.S. population," the report said.
It warned that a rejuvenated al Qaida leadership entrenched in a secure haven in Pakistan's lawless tribal region could try to mount an attack on the United States using al Qaida in Iraq.
"We assess that al Qaida will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of al Qaida in Iraq (AQI), its most visible and capable affiliate and the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the Homeland," said the report. "In addition, we assess that its association with AQI helps al Qaida to energize the broader Sunni (Muslim) extremist community, raise resources, and to recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for Homeland attacks."
Al Qaida in Iraq has sworn allegiance to bin Laden and is blamed for major bombings and attacks that have enflamed the civil war between Iraq's majority Shiite and minority Sunni Muslims.
Although Bush has repeatedly asserted that al Qaida in Iraq is the same organization that staged the Sept. 11 strikes in the United States, Al Qaida in Iraq was formed after the U.S.-led invasion.
The new NIE quickly turned into a political football as Bush struggles to maintain support for his Iraq policy among his own Republican party. Majority Democrats seized on it as fresh proof that Bush allowed al Qaida to recover from its 2001 ouster from Afghanistan by diverting U.S. troops, attention and resources to the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
"The unclassified summary of the National Intelligence Estimate released today leads me to two conclusions. One, the Bush administration's national security strategy has failed in its most basic responsibility: to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahri, the men who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks, and eliminate al Qaida as a threat to the homeland. And two: There is even greater urgency to the need to change course in Iraq," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Bush, who has repeatedly said bin Laden is on the run, insisted Tuesday that al Qaida is weaker than it was before the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Al Qaida is strong today, but they're not nearly as strong as they were prior to September the 11th, 2001," Bush said after a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon. "We've been working with the world to keep the pressure on, to stay on the offense, to bring them to justice so they won't hurt us again, to defeat them where we find them."
Still, Bush's top homeland security adviser, Frances Fragos Townsend, conceded that a peace deal between the Pakistani government and militants in the tribal area bordering Afghanistan — which Pakistan signed with U.S. encouragement in September — had failed to drive al Qaida from the region.
"It hasn't worked for Pakistan; it hasn't worked for the United States," she said.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which was set up in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, took the unusual step of releasing the highly classified report's key judgments at a news conference where senior U.S. intelligence, FBI and Department of Homeland Security officials discussed the findings.
Some key conclusions of the report, titled "The Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Homeland," were leaked to news organizations last week, including the assessment that al Qaida continues to pose the greatest terrorist danger to the United States. The most significant disclosure Tuesday was the warning that al Qaida's Iraqi affiliate could play a role in an attack on United States.
"Al Qaida is and will remain the most serious terrorist threat to the Homeland" because it has a more secure haven for its core leadership in Pakistan and developed a new cadre of operational lieutenants, the report said.
The report also warned of the growth of "self-generating" cells of Muslim extremists in Europe and the United States, fueled by the Internet and anti-U.S. rhetoric.
International cooperation has until now made it harder for al Qaida to strike the United States. But the report expressed concern that cooperation "may wane as 9/11 becomes more of a distant memory."
The danger from such groups is greater in Europe because the United States is "a more inclusive environment for all immigrant populations," said the NIE's principal author, Ted Gistaro, an FBI intelligence analyst.
Other potential terrorist threats to the United States come from Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant Shiite organization backed by Iran, and from domestic radicals, said the report.