Report: Al-Qaida Is Persistent, Evolving Threat The intelligence estimate says the terror network will bolster its operations in the U.S. It has also rebuilt its senior leadership and restored its safe havens in Pakistan.
NPR logo Report: Al-Qaida Is Persistent, Evolving Threat

Report: Al-Qaida Is Persistent, Evolving Threat

Hear NPR's Mary Louise Kelly

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Hear Former CIA counterterrorism officer Robert Grenier

Audio for this story is unavailable.

Click for an interactive map showing al-Qaida and al-Qaida-inspired groups around the world hide caption

toggle caption

Al-Qaida terrorists in Iraq will likely mount an attack in the U.S. within the next three years, according to a new National Intelligence Estimate that details domestic threats.

A declassified version of the findings was released Tuesday. It specifies a number of groups that pose a "persistent and evolving threat" to the U.S. over the next three years.

The report outlines how al-Qaida has rebuilt its operational capabilities and senior leadership and restored safe havens along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

It also asserts that al-Qaida is continuing to seek chemical, biological or nuclear weapons and would use them if it developed sufficient capability.

Presenting the findings to journalists at the White House, White House Homeland Security adviser Fran Townsend said Osama bin Laden's organization "will try to exploit opportunities in Iraq."

But Townsend defended the decision to invade Iraq, saying the war on terror is "not a zero sum game."

"If you poke the hornets' nest, they are bound to push back," she said in response to a question. "That doesn't suggest to me that you shouldn't be doing that."

"Al-Qaida will continue to attempt visually dramatic, mass killings in the homeland and will continue to develop chemical and biological weapons if it is able," she said, adding that authorities were unaware of any specific, imminent threat.

Townsend said, however, that despite a resurgence of al-Qaida, the group is "weaker today than it would have been had we not taken action over the last five years."

The findings focus on bin Laden's al-Qaida network but also warn of dangers from Lebanese Hezbollah and non-Muslim radical groups.

The report said al-Qaida has been able to restore safe havens in Pakistan's tribal region bordering Afghanistan, and Townsend was adamant that the U.S. "will continue to work with Pakistan to address the threat in the tribal areas."

"It is not only a problem only for us, but it is a problem for President [Pervez] Musharraf as well," she said.

Townsend said al-Qaida has replaced its leadership structure after U.S. operations captured or killed many of the organization's top commanders.

The report comes on the same day that Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued his most optimistic remarks on Iraq since the U.S. troop buildup began earlier this year.

Speaking in Ramadi, Iraq, Pace was asked whether he thought it was wise to continue the current strategy, with extra U.S. troops battling to secure Baghdad and Anbar province.

"What I'm hearing now is a sea change that is taking place in many places here," he replied. "It's no longer a matter of pushing al-Qaida out of Ramadi, for example, but rather — now that they have been pushed out — helping the local police and the local army have a chance to get their feet on the ground and set up their systems."

Pace said earlier in Baghdad that the U.S. military is continuing various options for Iraq, including an even bigger troop buildup if President Bush thinks his "surge" strategy needs a further boost.

Meanwhile, dozens of Shiite villagers in Iraq's north were massacred by Sunni extremists, two officials said Tuesday. In Baghdad, a car bomb exploded across the street from the Iranian Embassy and killed four civilians.

Shiite legislators loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr also decided to end their five-week boycott of parliament, one of their leaders said. The Shiite protest, along with a separate Sunni boycott, had blocked work on key benchmark legislation demanded by the U.S.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

National Intelligence Estimate: Key Judgments

Following are the "key judgments" listed in the declassified National Intelligence Estimate released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Tuesday.

We judge the US Homeland will face a persistent and evolving terrorist threat over the next three years. The main threat comes from Islamic terrorist groups and cells, especially al-Qa'ida, driven by their undiminished intent to attack the Homeland and a continued effort by these terrorist groups to adapt and improve their capabilities.

We assess that greatly increased worldwide counterterrorism efforts over the past five years have constrained the ability of al-Qa'ida to attack the US Homeland again and have led terrorist groups to perceive the Homeland as a harder target to strike than on 9/11. These measures have helped disrupt known plots against the United States since 9/11.

• We are concerned, however, that this level of international cooperation may wane as 9/11 becomes a more distant memory and perceptions of the threat diverge.

Al-Qa'ida is and will remain the most serious terrorist threat to the Homeland, as its central leadership continues to plan high-impact plots, while pushing others in extremist Sunni communities to mimic its efforts and to supplement its capabilities. We assess the group has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability, including: a safehaven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), operational lieutenants, and its top leadership. Although we have discovered only a handful of individuals in the United States with ties to al-Qa'ida senior leadership since 9/11, we judge that al-Qa'ida will intensify its efforts to put operatives here.

• As a result, we judge that the United States currently is in a heightened threat environment.

We assess that al-Qa'ida will continue to enhance its capabilities to attack the Homeland through greater cooperation with regional terrorist groups. Of note, we assess that al-Qa'ida will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of al-Qa'ida in Iraq (AQI), its most visible and capable affiliate and the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the Homeland. In addition, we assess that its association with AQI helps al-Qa'ida to energize the broader Sunni extremist community, raise resources, and to recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for Homeland attacks.

We assess that al-Qa'ida's Homeland plotting is likely to continue to focus on prominent political, economic, and infrastructure targets with the goal of producing mass casualties, visually dramatic destruction, significant economic aftershocks, and/or fear among the US population. The group is proficient with conventional small arms and improvised explosive devices, and is innovative in creating new capabilities and overcoming security obstacles.

• We assess that al-Qa'ida will continue to try to acquire and employ chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear material in attacks and would not hesitate to use them if it develops what it deems is sufficient capability.

We assess Lebanese Hizballah, which has conducted anti-US attacks outside the United States in the past, may be more likely to consider attacking the Homeland over the next three years if it perceives the United States as posing a direct threat to the group or Iran.

We assess that the spread of radical—especially Salafi—Internet sites, increasingly aggressive anti-US rhetoric and actions, and the growing number of radical, self-generating cells in Western countries indicate that the radical and violent segment of the West's Muslim population is expanding, including in the United States. The arrest and prosecution by US law enforcement of a small number of violent Islamic extremists inside the United States—who are becoming more connected ideologically, virtually, and/or in a physical sense to the global extremist movement—points to the possibility that others may become sufficiently radicalized that they will view the use of violence here as legitimate. We assess that this internal Muslim terrorist threat is not likely to be as severe as it is in Europe, however.

We assess that other, non-Muslim terrorist groups—often referred to as "single-issue" groups by the FBI—probably will conduct attacks over the next three years given their violent histories, but we assess this violence is likely to be on a small scale.

We assess that globalization trends and recent technological advances will continue to enable even small numbers of alienated people to find and connect with one another, justify and intensify their anger, and mobilize resources to attack—all without requiring a centralized terrorist organization, training camp, or leader.

• The ability to detect broader and more diverse terrorist plotting in this environment will challenge current US defensive efforts and the tools we use to detect and disrupt plots. It will also require greater understanding of how suspect activities at the local level relate to strategic threat information and how best to identify indicators of terrorist activity in the midst of legitimate interactions.