Western cadre said to boost al Qaeda's ability to hit U.S.
San Francisco Chronicle
Carol Eisenberg, Newsday
Wednesday, February 6, 2008

A steady stream of Western recruits to al Qaeda camps on the Pakistani border bolsters the group's ability to strike the United States, the nation's top intelligence official said Tuesday.

Those camps are preparing recruits to carry out terror attacks around the world, and are also a staging ground for assaults on neighboring Afghanistan, said National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell.

"Al Qaeda is improving the last key aspect of its ability to attack the U.S.: the identification, training and positioning of operatives for an attack on the homeland," McConnell testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

McConnell said Pakistani tribal areas provide al Qaeda a safe haven similar to what it had in Afghanistan before the war with the United States and NATO forces, but on a smaller and less secure scale. It uses the area to "maintain a cadre of skilled lieutenants capable of directing the organization's operations around the world," he said.

The next attack on the United States will most likely be by al Qaeda operating in those under-governed regions of Pakistan, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was expected to tell Congress today.

"Continued congressional support for the legitimate government of Pakistan braces this bulwark in the long war against violent extremism," Mullen stated in remarks prepared for a separate budget hearing and obtained by the Associated Press.

McConnell offered a mixed assessment of the Bush administration's progress in the war on terror: On the one hand, he said, it was no accident there had been no major attacks against the United States or most of its allies in the last year.

Working with its European counterparts, the United States has helped unravel extremist plots in Spain, Denmark and Germany, he said.

He also described the recently reported death of Abu Laith al-Libi, one of al Qaeda's military commanders, in a missile attack in Pakistan, as "the most serious blow to the group's top leadership" since December 2005.

Although al Qaeda has suffered setbacks, including significant casualties in Iraq and a declining reputation among some segments of the Muslim community as a result of its attacks on civilians, McConnell said the group continues to pose a serious threat.

He noted an influx of Western recruits to al Qaeda training camps since mid-2006.

And despite the declining violence in Iraq, he said, "I am increasingly concerned that as we inflict significant damage on al Qaeda in Iraq, it may shift resources to mounting more attacks outside of Iraq."

Documents captured in Iraq indicate that fewer than 100 militants have left that nation to form cells in other countries, according to a report released with McConnell's testimony.

Beyond terrorism, McConnell said that globalization had broadened the challenges facing the United States. He cited concerns that the financial clout of Russia, China and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries might be used by those countries to advance political goals.

On another controversial issue, McConnell said that in retrospect, "I probably would have changed a thing or two" in the public presentation of a National Intelligence Estimate two months ago, which concluded that Iran had stopped work on the design of a nuclear weapon. The estimate appeared to conflict with Bush administration rhetoric and undermined its effort to win support for tough sanctions against Iran.

McConnell said Tuesday that the weaponization design was the least important part of the program and that it was the only thing halted. He said Iran has continued its production of fissile material, although it faces significant technical problems in operating centrifuges.

The Washington Post and Associated Press contributed to this report.

This article appeared on page A - 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Original Text