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Bush Administration Officials Say al-Qaida Remains Threat


Six years after the September 11th terrorist attacks on the United States, Bush administration officials say Islamic extremist groups, and al-Qaida in particular, continue to pose a threat to the United States. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill, where the officials testified before a Senate panel.

Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, in an appearance before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, offered a sober appraisal of the threat posed by radical Islamic groups.

"They are still intent on carrying out attacks on the United States, preferably in the homeland, and if not, against American interests elsewhere," he said. "I think they are looking both to develop operatives who can launch from overseas, and they are also hoping to radicalize those within this country."

Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell says al-Qaida has regained a significant level of its capability, despite U.S. efforts to crack down on the terrorist network.

"The fact that they have sanctuary in that tribal area between Afghanistan and Pakistan has allowed them to adapt and morph [evolve] with sanctuary and committed leadership, they have rebuilt the middle tier," said McConnell. "What they do not have is vast numbers of recruits to carry out the acts they would like to perpetrate."

McConnell says al-Qaida has made gains in connecting radical groups - particularly across North Africa into the Middle East.

"There are extremists in virtually any country - what al-Qaida has been successful in doing is linking them," said McConnell. "So if you start in Northern Africa, in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, all the way across, there are groups affiliated with and some even changing their names to be al-Qaida. It almost takes on the connotation of a franchise."

The testimony came just days after al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden appeared in a videotape to mark the six years since the terrorist strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. National Intelligence Director McConnell says the tape is being analyzed, but so far, he does not believe bin Laden was sending a specific message to followers.

"So far, we do not think this is a signal," said McConnell. "He has done this periodically."

McConnell says bin Laden's darker-looking beard has attracted particular notice among intelligence analysts.

"The big question in the community is, is that beard real? Because, as you know, a few years ago, the last time he appeared, it was very different. So we do not know if it was dyed or trimmed or real, but that is what we are looking at," he said.

McConnell says the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and his Deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, remain top priorities for the United States, and significant resources are being spent on the search.

Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert Mueller told the Senate panel his agency is working to counter efforts by radical groups to recruit followers in the United States.

"We do have individuals in the United States who adhere to that ideology, that extremist ideology, and we work with our counterparts to make certain we identify [them], and after identification, we determine to what extent there are other participants here or overseas, and work to disrupt those plots," said Mueller.

The chairman of the Senate Committee, Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, said he is particularly concerned about that issue.

"There are people right here in America who have swallowed the jihadist ideology and are prepared to kill innocent Americans," he said.

FBI Director Mueller says his agency is working with the Muslim-American community develop ways to address the radicalization issue.

National Intelligence Director McConnell says intelligence agencies have improved the way they conduct intelligence by reforming and streamlining their organizational structure, sharing information and strengthening analysis.

He called on Congress to make permanent revisions in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to allow the federal government greater authority to intercept phone calls and e-mails of suspected terrorists overseas and people in the United States. Congress last month agreed to allow the revisions for six months, and will revisit the issue when they expire.