A new U.S. intelligence estimate says al-Qaida remains determined to mount attacks on major targets in the United States, especially if it can acquire weapons of mass destruction. VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports on the intelligence community's latest conclusions on al-Qaida's strength and reach.
The publicly released portions of the new National Intelligence Estimate say al-Qaida's determination to attack the United States is undiminished. Ted Gistaro, the intelligence officer who wrote the report, says counter-terrorism efforts have hampered al-Qaida, but it still remains the major threat to the United States.
"It has constrained al-Qaida, and caused a number of terrorist groups in addition to al-Qaida to perceive the U.S. as a more difficult target, but despite that we see an undiminished intent on the part of al-Qaida to try and attack us here at home. And so we concluded that al-Qaida is and will remain the most serious threat to the homeland," he said.
The estimate says al-Qaida has reconstituted itself as a center of global Islamic terrorism in bases deep inside Pakistan's largely lawless tribal areas along the Afghan border.
But Gistaro says al-Qaida is not stronger now than it was right after September 11th, 2001, as some earlier news reports had suggested.
"The [intelligence] community did not make the judgment that al-Qaida is stronger than at any time since 9/11 - did not discuss that, did not make that judgment," he said.
Intelligence officials say all 16 U.S. agencies that deal in intelligence or counter-terrorism unanimously concurred in the report's key judgments.
A 2006 National Intelligence Estimate on al-Qaida said the global jihadist movement was becoming decentralized and diffuse. Gistaro says that appears to have changed as al-Qaida has become more organized again and seeks to extend its reach and contacts, particularly with the group calling itself al-Qaida in Iraq.
"I think the relationship can be elastic at times. I think certainly two years ago we described it as being more decentralized, more of a franchisee type of relationship. I think one of the implications of al-Qaida core [leadership] having a more secure safe haven in Pakistan is that it's able to reconnect those lines of communication," he said.
White House Homeland Security Adviser Fran Townsend says the new intelligence estimate highlights the need for continuing vigilance against al-Qaida's terrorist threats.
"We are facing a persistent terrorist enemy led by al-Qaida that remains driven and intent on attacking the homeland and that continues to adapt and improve its capabilities," she said.
But Peter Zeihan, an analyst with the private intelligence firm Stratfor, says the public portions of the National Intelligence Estimate highlight intentions, not capabilities.
"If you go through the NIE report with a fine tooth comb, you'll notice that the word 'intent' is thrown around a lot, but the word 'capabilities' never pops up. And that's how we see it. The intent of al-Qaida to leverage all these groups that want to be associated with it, such as al-Qaida in Iraq, is definitely there. The intent of al-Qaida Prime, the apex leadership, to launch another major attack in the United States, is certainly there. What they lack is the capability," he said.
Democrats and Republicans both seized on the intelligence estimate to bolster their respective arguments over Iraq war policy. Republicans said the report highlights the continued need to confront al-Qaida in Iraq. Democrats say it underscores how the war in Iraq created new terrorists there while allowing al-Qaida to re-group in Pakistan.