Al-Qaeda is using its growing strength in Pakistan and Iraq to plot attacks on US soil, heightening the terror threat facing the US over the next few years, US intelligence agencies say.
At the same time, intelligence analysts worry that international cooperation against terrorism will be hard to sustain as memories of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the US fade and the nations' views diverge on what the real threat is.
In the National Intelligence Estimate prepared for US President George W. Bush and other top policymakers, analysts laid out a range of dangers -- al-Qaeda, Lebanese Hezbollah, non-Muslim radical groups -- that pose a "persistent and evolving threat" to the country over the next three years.
The findings focused most heavily on Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, which was judged to remain the most serious threat to the US. The group's affiliate in Iraq, which has not yet posed a direct threat to US soil, could do just that, the report concluded. Al-Qaeda in Iraq threatened to attack the US in a Web statement last September.
National Intelligence Council Chairman Thomas Fingar warned that the group's operatives in Iraq are getting portable, firsthand experience in covert communications, smuggling, improvised explosive devices, understanding US military tactics and more.
The Iraqi affiliate also helps al-Qaeda more broadly as it tries to energize Sunni Muslim extremists around the globe, raise resources and recruit and indoctrinate operatives -- "including for homeland attacks," according to a declassified summary of the report's main findings.
In addition, analysts stressed the importance of al-Qaeda's increasingly comfortable hideout in Pakistan that has resulted from a hands-off accord between Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and tribal leaders along the Afghan border. That 10-month-old deal, which has unraveled in recent days, gave al-Qaeda new opportunities to set up compounds for terror training, improve its international communications with associates and bolster its operations.
The assessment shows how the threat has changed.
Two years ago, the intelligence agencies considered al-Qaeda's various "franchises" decentralized offshootswith bin Laden mostly providing ideological direction.
Fingar said his experts believe bin Laden and his top deputy are hiding in Pakistan. "There is no question that the ungoverned character of the space is a major factor in the Taliban's and al-Qaeda's and other extremist groups' ability to hide -- hide in plain sight," he said.
National Intelligence Estimates are the most authoritative written judgments of the 16 spy agencies across the breadth of the US government. These documents reflect the consensus long-term thinking of top intelligence analysts.
Tuesday's publicly disclosed judgments are part of a more expansive, still-classified document, approved by the heads of all 16 intelligence agencies on June 21.
Analysts, who concluded the US now faces a "heightened threat environment," painted an increasingly familiar picture of al-Qaeda: A group focused on high-profile attacks against political, economic and infrastructure targets, while striving to cause mass casualties and dramatic destruction.
FBI Deputy Director John Pistole said the bureau does not know of any al-Qaeda cells in the US, although his agents continue investigating such questions. The estimate said international counterterror efforts since 2001 have hampered al-Qaeda's ability to attack the US again, while also convincing terror groups that US soil is a tougher target.
Charles Allen, the Department of Homeland Security's top intelligence official, said the department is not changing the nation's threat level, which remains at yellow, or "elevated," the middle of a five-point scale. Airlines remain one step higher, at orange.
Even as authorities warn of dangers within the US, analysts concluded the threat is more severe in Europe. The problem could touch the US directly, Fingar noted, because of the ease of travel between Europe and the US.
The White House sought to minimize the report's worries about the future of international counterterrorist cooperation. Bush's homeland security adviser, Frances Fragos Townsend, said the administration is not worried about being abandoned by allies.
The Bush administration also brushed off critics who say the administration released the intelligence estimate now to help its case as the Senate debates whether to withdraw troops from Iraq. White House press secretary Tony Snow said critics are "engaged in a little selective hearing ... to shape the story in their own political ways."
Meanwhile, Democrats said that the report was proof that US anti-terrorism effort is being drained by the Iraq war.
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