Al Qaeda Still Main Threat, CIA Chief Says
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Mar. 19, 2002 Even with progress in eradicating al Qaeda, the terrorist organization remains the most immediate and serious threat facing the United States and its allies, intelligence officials said March 19.
CIA Director George Tenet told the Senate Armed Services Committee that al Qaeda and other terrorist groups will continue to plan to attack the United States, its allies and U.S. interests abroad. He also told the senators that there are ties between Iraq and al Qaeda.
Intelligence indicated al Qaeda has considered attacks in the United States on high-profile government or private facilities, famous landmarks and U.S. infrastructure nodes such as airports, bridges, harbors, dams and financial centers, Tenet said. Overseas embassies and military installations are at particular high-risk, especially in East Africa, Israel, Saudi, Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Tenet said al Qaeda can make use of extensive cells in major European cities and the Middle East. "Al Qaeda can also exploit its presence in such countries as Somalia, Yemen, Indonesia and the Philippines," he said.
He said the Sept. 11 attacks on America suggest that al Qaeda and other terrorist groups will continue to use conventional weapons. But, "one of our highest concerns is their stated readiness to attempt unconventional attacks against us," he observed.
He said terror groups have ready access to chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons information. "Documents obtained from al Qaeda facilities in Afghanistan show that (Osama) bin Laden was pursuing a sophisticated biological weapons research program," Tenet said. The intelligence indicates bin Laden was seeking to acquire or develop a nuclear device and that other al Qaeda cells may be pursuing a "dirty bomb" -- one that spews radioactive material.
Tenet said al Qaeda or others may attempt attacks against the chemical or nuclear infrastructure of the United States in hopes of causing widespread toxic or radiological damage.
He said the U.S. and coalition war on terror has dealt severe blows to al Qaeda and its leadership. The group is no longer able to run large-scale training and recruitment programs in Afghanistan, he said.
"We are uncovering terrorist plans and breaking up their cells around the world," Tenet noted. He said more than 1,300 people believed to be associated with al Qaeda have been arrested in more than 70 countries. He said this has disrupted terrorist operations and foiled potential terrorist attacks.
But, he said, al Qaeda "has not been destroyed." The terrorist network is trying to reconstitute itself. "We must eradicate these organizations by denying them their sources of financing, their sanctuaries and limiting their ability to hijack humanitarian organizations for terrorist purposes," he said. "We must be prepared for a long war and we must not falter."
Tenet said events in Afghanistan have led Iraq to launch a political and diplomatic "charm offensive." He said Saddam Hussein is undermining U.N. sanctions and putting the money he receives into his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.
"He is trying to resurrect the military force he had before the Gulf War," Tenet said. "Today, he maintains his grip on the levers of power through a pervasive intelligence and security apparatus, and even his reduced military force remains capable of defeating more poorly armed internal opposition groups and threatening Iraq's neighbors."
He said the United States continues to watch Iraq's involvement in terrorist activities. "Baghdad has a long history of supporting terrorism, altering its targets to reflect changing priorities and goals," he said. "It has also had contacts with al Qaeda. Their ties may be limited by divergent ideologies, but the two sides' mutual antipathy towards the United States and the Saudi royal family suggest that tactical cooperation between them is possible, even though Saddam is well aware that such activity would carry severe consequences."
Tenet said he is also concerned about Iran and suggests that the push toward moderation in that fundamentalist nation may be stalling. He said Iran is building weapons of mass destruction capabilities and is working closely with North Korea and Russia.