U.S. Intelligence Report to Say Al-Qaida Regroups

The National Intelligence Estimate, a survey of threats to the U.S. compiled from intelligence gathered by CIA, FBI, State Department and military intelligence agencies, is expected to report a persistent and evolving terrorist threat to the U.S. in the next three years from al-Qaida.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer, in for Renee Montagne.

An official survey of threats to the United States comes out this morning in the form of a National Intelligence Estimate. It's a summary compiled from intelligence gathered by, among others, the CIA, FBI, State Department and military intelligence. It's expected to report that al-Qaida is stronger than it's been in years and that the terror network may try to use its contacts in Iraq to launch an attack on the United States.

NPR's intelligence correspondent Mary Louise Kelly joins us now with more. Good morning.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: So what can you tell us about what will be in this report?

KELLY: What we're told is the focus is on the threat posed by al-Qaida, and specifically Osama bin Laden and other senior leaders who are believed to be hiding in Pakistan.

And the headline apparently is that that core group is getting stronger, that U.S. intelligence is hearing more communication, has seen more signs of activity overall in Pakistan's tribal areas. Now, the report is not due out for another hour. Some details are beginning to leak out. The Associated Press is now reporting that the report also says al-Qaida will try to leverage, and I'll quote, "the contacts and capabilities of al-Qaida in Iraq to attack U.S. soil." So the document describes al-Qaida in Iraq as al-Qaida's most visible, most capable affiliate group elsewhere in the world.

WERTHEIMER: So it sounds like there is concern about al-Qaida in Iraq and new concern about the bin Laden group in Pakistan. How do you square that? I mean, what we've been hearing over the past couple of years was that the terror threat had shifted and the concern was more about homegrown groups or offshoot groups.

KELLY: This is true. And the concern this document appears to point to is that you now have both - growing concern, growing alarm about offshoot groups, also growing concern about core al-Qaida leaders. One thing that's interesting here, the last NIE that we know of that weighed in on the global terrorist threat was produced back in April 2006. So that's 15 months ago, and they had a different take on the subject then.

That document - I went back and looked at it - it describes an al-Qaida whose senior leadership has been seriously damaged, an al-Qaida that is growing more diffuse. This new document apparently points to an al-Qaida whose senior leadership is growing stronger. So it's a bit of a reversal.

WERTHEIMER: What happened?

KELLY: I think you could point to a couple of events. One that has shifted perceptions is the foiled plot you will remember from last summer at Heathrow Airport. This was the alleged plot to blow up planes leaving Heathrow coming to the United States. There were some questions about how serious that plot was, how far along it may be. The experts I spoke to take that plot seriously, and they say it's alarming both in that it demonstrated core al-Qaida was still determined to try to pull off a spectacular attack; also that as investigators have unraveled that plot and tried to chase the leads, a lot of the leads have gone straight back to Pakistan.

So I think that has caused a little bit of a rethinking in terms of how strong is core al-Qaida, how determined are they to continue to attacking outside of that actual region around Pakistan and Afghanistan. And I think there have been some changes there. And that would be the second factor I would point to is changes on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

WERTHEIMER: That border area where Osama bin Laden and other core al-Qaida leaders are believed to be hiding. We have seen, this week, renewed instability there - bombings, suicide attacks.

KELLY: Absolutely. Another one this morning apparently, another suicide attack in northwestern Pakistan. What has happened there is, last year, the Pakistani government tried to get a handle on the situation. They signed a peace deal with local tribal leaders that was designed to curb violence and extremism in these areas along the border with Afghanistan. They say it worked. U.S. officials say it has in fact done the opposite and has allowed al-Qaida to regrouped and grow stronger in those areas.

There are a lot of questions about the status of that peace deal. You mentioned the instability and there are questions about whether that deal may be collapsing. Whatever happens with it, the concern here, as we're apparently going to hear this morning in this new intelligence report, is that al-Qaida has managed to regroup, that it is increasingly capable of fresh attacks here in the U.S. This is not the headline that anyone would have hoped to hear, here we are nearly six years into the war on terror.

WERTHEIMER: Mary Louise, thanks.

KELLY: You're welcome.

WERTHEIMER: NPR intelligence correspondent Mary Louise Kelly.

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