Senior al Qaeda leaders have diverted operatives from Iraq across the globe and are increasing preparations to strike the United States, senior intelligence officials told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence yesterday. They said the terrorists had plans to attack the White House as recently as 2006.
Al Qaeda is improving the last key aspect of its ability to attack the U.S. the identification, training and positioning of operatives for an attack in the homeland, said Michael McConnell, director of national intelligence, which oversees all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies.
Intelligence officials also said they used a controversial interrogation tactic known as waterboarding, which some people regard as torture, only on three senior al Qaeda members early in the war on terror and that it has not been used in five years.
The officials added that al Qaeda is recruiting Westerners to terror camps in Pakistan.
While increased security measures at home and abroad have caused al Qaeda to view the West, especially the U.S., as a harder target, we have seen an influx of new Western recruits into the tribal areas since mid-2006, Mr. McConnell said.
Mr. McConnell revealed that al Qaeda had plans to specifically target the White House.
It [al Qaeda] probably will continue to devote some effort towards honoring bin Laden’s request in 2005 that al Qaeda attempt to strike the United States, affirmed publicly by current al Qaeda leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri in a November 2006 threat against the White House, he said.
White House officials would not comment on specific security threats to the president or the White House.
DNI officials would not elaborate or offer details of specifics to the threat.
The statement speaks for itself, said Vanee Vines spokeswoman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Mr. McConnell was seated alongside CIA Director Michael V. Hayden; FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III; Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and Randall Fort, assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research.
Later in the hearing, Mr. Hayden said his agency’s use of lawful interrogation methods, including waterboarding, on three high-level al Qaeda members was necessary to gain critical information on the organization after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Mr. Hayden added that waterboarding was only used those three times as a necessary measure to handle the imminent threat posed by the terrorist organization.
We used it against these three detainees because of the circumstances at the time, Mr. Hayden said. There was the belief that additional catastrophic attacks against the homeland were inevitable. And we had limited knowledge about al Qaeda and its workings. Those two realities have changed.
The three al Qaeda detainees were Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the September 11 terrorist attacks; Abu Zubaydah, an early member of al Qaeda and close associate of bin Laden and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, behind the USS Cole bombing and who headed al Qaeda operations in the Persian Gulf before he was captured in November 2002.
The three captives were interrogated in 2002 and 2003 and waterboarding has not been used since, Mr. Hayden said.
Mr. McConnell added that although al Qaeda absorbed vast resources in the ongoing conflict in Iraq, the terrorist organization has leveraged broad external networks as far as Europe to support their goals.
Internal al Qaeda documents obtained in Iraq by U.S. intelligence suggest that fewer than 100 [al Qaeda] terrorists have moved from Iraq to establish cells in other countries, he said.
The most active al Qaeda affiliate in northwestern Africa is the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb, which intelligence officials said poses a significant threat to U.S. and European interests in the region.
Further, al Qaeda has been able to retain a safe haven in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that provides the organization many of the advantages it once derived from its base across the border in Afghanistan making it a training hub for terrorists seeking to attack the United States and its allies, Mr. McConnell said.
Despite cooperation from Pakistan, Gen. Maples said the Pakistani military has not been able to disrupt al Qaeda operations in the tribal border region. He added that the U.S. military is prohibited by Pakistan from pursuing al Qaeda fighters or Taliban that flee Afghanistan across the border after conducting attacks.