Al Qaeda Damaged, But Still Committed to U.S. Attacks
By John D. Banusiewicz
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 9, 2004 Though al Qaeda's leadership structure has been seriously damaged, the organization remains "as committed as ever to attacking the U.S. homeland," the nation's top intelligence official said today on Capitol Hill.
Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet identified al Qaeda as the biggest danger to the United States in his annual national security threat assessment to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Though many of al Qaeda's top leaders have been killed or captured, Tenet said, the organization still is capable of devastating attacks like those of Sept. 11, 2001.
"Military and intelligence operations by the United States and its allies overseas have degraded the group," he said. "Local al Qaeda cells are forced to make their own decisions because of the central leadership's disarray."
Tenet said the operations have hurt al Qaeda. "Over the past 18 months," he said, "we have killed or captured key al Qaeda leaders in every significant operational area logistics, planning, finance and training and have eroded the key pillars of the organization."
U.S. and allied military and intelligence efforts have prevented attacks that otherwise would have taken place, he added, and have reduced al Qaeda's operational safe havens. But despite "notable strides" these efforts have made against the terror organization, Tenet said, al Qaeda has transformed into a loose collection of more autonomous regional networks and still poses a significant threat.
"Detainees consistently talk about the importance the group still attaches to striking the main enemy, the United States," Tenet said. "Across the operational spectrum air, maritime, special weapons we have time and again uncovered plots that are chilling. On aircraft plots alone, we have uncovered new plans to recruit pilots and to evade new security measures in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Europe." Catastrophic attacks like those of Sept. 11, 2001, he added, remain within al Qaeda's reach.
Radical Muslim jihadists are growing in numbers and pose a similar threat, Tenet pointed out. A spectacular attack against the U.S. homeland continues to be "the brass ring" to which both terrorist organizations and jihadists aspire, he said.
Tenet noted that acquiring chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons remains "a religious obligation" in the eyes of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. "And al Qaeda and more than two dozen terrorist groups are pursuing CBRN materials," he added.
The threat of an attack using such weapons is one the intelligence community takes very seriously, Tenet said. "Extremists have widely disseminated assembly instructions for an improvised chemical weapon, using common materials, that could cause a large number of casualties in crowded, enclosed areas." He called al Qaeda's program to produce anthrax "one of the most immediate terrorist CBRN threats we are likely to face."
The director emphasized, however, that al Qaeda is not the limit of the worldwide terrorist threat. He said "a serious threat will remain for the foreseeable future with or without al Qaeda in the picture." This will happen through spreading Osama bin Laden's anti-American sentiment via the wider Sunni extremist movement and broad dissemination of al Qaeda's destructive expertise. Dozens of groups exist within the al Qaeda-influenced movement, he said, and they represent "the next wave of the terrorist threat."
Tenet said small, international Sunni extremist groups who have benefited from al Qaeda links pose one of the most immediate threats. "They include groups as diverse as the Zarqawi network and Ansar al-Islam in Iraq, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan," he said. "These far- flung groups increasingly set the agenda and are redefining the threat that we face."
Though he expressed concern about former regime elements in Iraq joining forces with foreign jihadists, Tenet told the senators there's "low" likelihood those efforts would undermine the June 30 transfer of sovereignty in Iraq to the Iraqi people. But he said he expects more violence as June 30 draws closer.
Tenet noted some Sunnis the deposed ruling minority in Iraq -- have started to work toward securing a legitimate stake in the country's new government. "Some are beginning to recognize that boycotting the emerging political process will weaken their community," he said. "Their political isolation may be breaking down in parts of the Sunni Triangle, where some Sunni Arabs have begun to engage the coalition and assume local leadership roles."
He cited national Sunni umbrella organizations that have formed over the last three months to work with the coalition and the Iraqi Governing Council as another encouraging sign.