Terror Watch: The Return of Al Qaeda
A new National Intelligence Estimate raises concerns that the terrorist group is growing stronger.
By Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball
Updated: 6:10 p.m. ET July 11, 2007
July 11, 2007 - A new National Intelligence Estimate presents a sobering analysis of terrorism threats to the United States, concluding that Al Qaeda has reconstituted its core structure along the Pakistani border and may now be a stronger and more resilient organization today than it appeared a year ago, according to three U.S. intelligence officials familiar with the draft document.
The officials, who asked not to be identified talking about sensitive matters, said the still-classified document reflects growing jitters among U.S. counterterrorism officials, even while those officials stressed there is “no credible, specific” intelligence on any imminent threat to the homeland. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff underscored the concerns this week when he told the Chicago Tribune that he had a “gut feeling” that the country was entering a new period of increased risk this summer.
In fact, the activities of Al Qaeda’s leadership along the Afghan-Pakistani border are only one component of an overall threat environment that is worrying officials both in the United States and Europe. The stepped-up movement of suspected Islamic militants between Iraq and Europe has proven so troubling that the German government recently set up a special interagency team to track the flow of suspected jihadi recruits to and from that worn-torn country, two German sources told NEWSWEEK.
Over the past few months, U.S. officials said, the U.S. Embassy in Berlin has issued a number of warnings that Islamic militants associated with Al Qaeda may be plotting an attack on U.S. military facilities and personnel in Germany. The suspected plots are believed to be linked to an obscure terrorist network known as the Islamic Jihad Union. The group originated in Uzbekistan, but its German network has recently attracted recruits of other nationalities. Investigators also suspect it may have established contact with Al Qaeda’s high command.
A wealth of new evidence from recent overseas developments, including the investigation into the foiled bombing attacks in the United Kingdom, has prompted the FBI to mobilize teams of agents to track down leads and potential witnesses in the United States, a law-enforcement official confirmed today. The official said that recent assignments, first reported on the ABC News online column The Blotter, were part of a "stepped up" effort over the next few weeks in light of the disturbing current threat picture.
Assessing the precise nature of terror threats has proven a notoriously unreliable exercise for the U.S. intelligence community. In the first few years after the September 11 attacks, for example, nervous U.S. officials repeatedly announced warnings of increased risk—in some cases issuing Orange alerts, the second highest level—sometimes based on what turned out to be faulty or exaggerated intelligence reports. U.S. officials are fearful of again being perceived as “crying wolf” or scaring the public—one reason they have for the time being decided not to raise the alert level this summer.
The NIE reflects the consensus judgment of U.S. intelligence agencies and is prepared by the National Intelligence Council. A version of the new report, due to be released later this summer, is especially striking because it contrasts in some respects with previous analyses by the U.S. intelligence community. An NIE on “Trends in Global Terrorism”—portions of which were declassified last September—concluded that U.S. counterterrorism efforts “have seriously damaged the leadership of Al Qaeda and disrupted its operations.”
At the same time, however, last year’s NIE also warned that Al Qaeda had spawned a jihadi movement that had metastasized, and that radical jihadis were “increasing in both number and geographic dispersion.” One cause, the analysis concluded, was the U.S. invasion of Iraq—which intelligence officials said had become a “cause celebre for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of U.S. involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihaidst movement.”
But the new NIE’s conclusions about Al Qaeda activities in Pakistan, along with the increasing signs of jihadi militants flowing out of Iraq, suggest that the U.S. counterterrorism community may now be facing the worst of both worlds: a reconstituted Al Qaeda leadership coupled with a growing and dispersed worldwide army of angry jihadis inflamed by the U.S. presence in Iraq. The new document’s conclusions also could make it more difficult for the White House to argue, as it frequently has in the past, that President Bush’s post-9/11 efforts have made the country “safer.”
The signs that Al Qaeda leaders have regrouped and reconstituted themselves have been evident in increased intelligence reporting about plots against U.S. interests emanating from the Pakistani border, along with what one official called an unsually “robust” Al Qaeda public-affairs campaign. The organization has released audio, video and Internet messages on average once a week. (In just the last week, Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has released two messages—one audio and one video—in which he rails against U.S. policies. He also threatened to attack Britain in response to the granting of a knighthood to author Salman Rushdie.)
The primary development that has allowed all this to happen, U.S. officials say, was the peace agreement signed last year between the Pakistani government of President Pervez Musharraf and pro-Taliban tribal leaders in the remote region of North Waziristan. The withdrawal of Pakistani troops under that agreement gave Al Qaeda leaders new freedom to operate with relative impunity, officials said. "Clearly, they are resurgent,” said one senior U.S. intelligence official about Al Qaeda. (The official, who is familiar with the NIE’s findings, asked not to be identified because the document remains classified.)
The NIE was described by officials as a broad look at potential terrorist threats to the homeland, and includes discussion of a number of worrisome trends, including the rise of so-called "homegrown” jihadis inside the United States who are not necessarily connected to Al Qaeda but inspired by its message. Although a draft of the document is circulating among U.S. security agencies, it is not yet in final form and has not yet been briefed to congressional intelligence committees. But officials said that its conclusions about the renewed strength of bin Laden’s terror organization are not likely to come as a surprise; they are consistent with briefings the panels have been receiving for some time. European officials contacted by NEWSWEEK affirm that recent intelligence they have gathered substantiates the notion that Al Qaeda’s high command was regaining strength.
The news of the German effort to track the movements of suspected Islamic militants to and from Iraq follows disclosures of possible connections between Al Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate—known as Al Qaeda in Iraq, or AQI—and one or more suspects in the recent attempted car bombings in London and Glasgow.
One of the British suspects who is believed to have built and planted the London bombs and then ridden in a booby-trapped Jeep driven into a Glasgow Airport terminal was Bilal Abdullah, an Iraqi doctor working near Glasgow for Britain's National Health Service. Authorities charged Abdullah last weekend with conspiracy to cause explosions. A second man in the Glasgow airport Jeep, Kafeel Ahmed, an aeronautical engineer, was severely burned after setting himself on fire during the airport incident and may not survive his injuries.
Two officials close to the British investigation say that some intelligence has already been collected indicating that one or more of the suspects in the London/Glasgow plots had been in contact with AQI, and possibly with AQI leaders. (One of the officials said there is no indication that the plotters were in direct contact with AQI's notorious founder Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, the bloodthirsty Jordanian-born jihadi who was killed in U.S. airstrike last year.)
A similar concern about possible threats from Iraqi jihadis seems to have prompted the recent decision by the German government's Joint Counterterrorism Center (known in Germany as GTAZ) to set up an "Iraq travel movement project."
German sources, who agreed to discuss the matter in exchange for anonymity, said the number of suspects whose movements are being tracked by the project is classified; that figure is also the subject of some debate in government circles. But it is "more than a handful," according to one source. Another source said German authorities know "for sure" that there have been movements from their country to areas in Iraq where jihadi groups like AQI are believed to hold sway. "A number" of jihadi suspects who have returned to Germany after spending some time in Iraq are on the travel project's radar screen, the source says.
The sources said the project coordinates the activities of several German agencies. They include the Federal Criminal Police (Germany's FBI); the Federal Border Police; spy units like the Federal Intelligence Service (Germany's CIA), and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (the equivalent of Britain's M.I.5). The object is to monitor "quite closely" the movements of German-based suspects to and from Iraq and nearby countries.
German government experts believe that the war in Iraq is already providing potential "motivation" for suspected terrorist plotters, whose plans are periodically uncovered by German authorities. These include plots by self-recruiting cells of disgruntled Islamic militants who might have little obvious previous contact with known terror networks.
Some suspects known to the project who have visited Iraq are believed to have "got a very good education" in jihadi ideology and tactics while there, one of the German sources said. Still, German authorities do not believe that jihadis returning from Iraq pose immediate attack threats. At the moment, said one source, known Iraq returnees appear to be "very calm."
But German authorities are taking few chances. Over the last few weeks, they have issued a series of increasingly anxious public warnings about growing intelligence indicating possible Islamic terror attacks inside Germany. At a press conference last month, August Hanning, a deputy Interior minister who previously headed the Federal Intelligence Service, said that the intelligence picture German agencies were seeing was reminiscent of what intelligence agencies saw in the months before 9/11.