Terror Watch: The Flip Side of the NIE

A new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) released yesterday spurred fresh fears that a resurgent Al Qaeda is rebuilding its capability to attack the United States. But the much-publicized document—actually a two-page summary of the entire report, most of which remains classified—is riddled with caveats and qualifiers that underscore how little hard evidence U.S. intelligence agencies really have about the size and capabilities of international terrorist groups and the threats they pose.

There's no precise information in the report on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri—or whether their network has any operatives currently inside the United States. In the declassified portion of the NIE, which reflects the consensus view of all U.S. intelligence agencies, the government also admits that since 9/11, they "have discovered only a handful of individuals in the United States with ties to Al Qaeda senior leadership," although U.S. agencies estimate that "Al Qaeda will intensify its efforts to put operatives here." FBI Deputy Director John Pistole acknowledged at a press conference announcing the new report that no Al Qaeda sleeper cell was currently known by U.S. authorities to exist inside the country. "Of course, it's the ones that we have not identified which would constitute a sleeper cell," he cautioned.

The NIE asserts—without much evidence—that U.S. agencies believe a renascent Al Qaeda central command will try to "leverage the contacts and capabilities of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)," the deadly jihadi network set up by the late Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, which pledged its loyalty to Osama bin Laden after wreaking havoc in post-invasion Iraq. However, officials at the press conference indicated the only hard evidence they had that AQI had an interest in attacking inside the U.S. was a statement posted on a Web site last October by Abu Ayyub, the network's purported leader, expressing the group's desire to try to attack inside the United States. The NIE's principal author, Ted Gistaro, the U.S. intelligence community's top terrorism expert, told reporters that U.S. agencies believed that "the overwhelming amount of AQI resources at present are focused on the conflict in Iraq, and that occupies most of their resources." (Gistaro also said flatly that AQI did not exist before the U.S. invasion of Iraq).

The NIE summary also warned that the Lebanese-based Shiite Hizbullah movement, which had conducted anti-U.S. attacks overseas in the past, might consider striking against American interests or the continental United States. But the report suggested this was probably only likely if Hizbollah perceived the United States as a threat either to the movement itself or to its long-time patrons in Iran.

Officials said that they did not necessarily believe that Al Qaeda's leadership was as strong today as it had been before 9/11. At that stage, Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants, aided by a sympathetic regime in Afghanistan run by Taliban militants, operated an elaborate network of camps that recruited, indoctrinated and trained literally thousands of would-be Islamic holy warriors for terrorist and paramilitary operations in the region and abroad. The U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan after 9/11 drove the Taliban from power, and put Al Qaeda on the run. But the "peace pact"—under which the Pakistani government essentially agreed to allow tribes in remote border provinces to govern themselves without interference from Pakistani authorities (let alone their U.S. allies)—has given fugitive Al Qaeda leaders the space to groom new field commanders and recruit and train a new generation of jihadis.

U.S. officials do not believe that the situation in the tribal areas has degenerated to the point where Al Qaeda is once again operating large-scale training camps in the area. But these officials do believe that similar terrorist training now is going on in "compounds" inside the tribal areas, declining to be more specific. Officials also say there is evidence of a new "flow" of jihadi recruits to and from the region, particularly from countries in the "Maghreb," a region of Islamic influence in North Africa extending from Libya on the Mediterranean to Morocco on the Atlantic.

The first destination for newly minted North African recruits who might be sent back out into the world to commit mayhem, intelligence officials acknowledged, would likely be European countries—like France and Germany—with which the terrorist recruits' home countries had traditional relationships. There is "a real concern among the Europeans in terms of that flow," one intelligence official said at the press conference.

The NIE summary also warns that the spread of radical Islamist Internet sites is making it easier for would-be terrorists with no connection to Al Qaeda's leadership to steep themselves in militant ideology. That's what U.S. investigators believe may have happened in several recent domestic terrorist plots—including schemes to attack Fort Dix in New Jersey and New York's JFK Airport. However, the NIE summary adds that "this internal Muslim terrorist threat is not likely to be as severe as it is in Europe."

For all the domestic jitters generated by the new report, intelligence officials agree that the threat picture is more ominous in Europe than America. In Britain, police and intelligence agencies are still investigating a recent plot in which an Iraqi doctor and an aeronatical engineer allegedly planted two car bombs in London tourist areas that failed to go off and then apparently tried to kill themselves by driving a booby-trapped Jeep into Glasgow Airport. Several other doctors were arrested in the plot, though some suspects have since been released. This is the third consecutive summer in which major terrorist plots have been uncovered in Britain: two years ago, suicide bombers attacked London subways and buses twice (only one, on July 7, 2005, succeeded). Last summer, police rounded up some two dozen suspects for allegedly plotting to blow up airliners over the Atlantic (some suspects were released). British authorities have estimated that they currently have as many as 30-40 active plots and 1,600 major terrorist suspects to follow, and counterterror officials have complained they do not have enough manpower to cover all the bases.

Over the last three months, counterterror officials in Germany have repeatedly warned of possible attacks by an obscure jihadist group on U.S. or German interests. One senior German official publicly described the intelligence picture as evocative of what authorities saw before 9/11; another official, Germany's interior minister, recently suggested that antiterror practices might have to be changed to include possible targeted killings of suspects.

Officials familiar with current investigations told a NEWSWEEK reporter who recently visited Germany that there are major counterterrorism and criminal investigations under way into the activities of the Islamic Jihad Union, a group with historical ties to Uzbekistan that is believed to be behind the current threats of attack inside Germany (and particular against American targets there). Despite the group's Uzbek roots, the officials said, it has managed to attract militants from other ethnic backgrounds—including, apparently, German citizens. Investigators have observed suspects buying suspicious materials—which one U.S. official said could include bomb "precursors"—and behaving suspiciously. German law does not allow counterintelligence officials to place electronic bugs in rooms or cars, however, so there are major blind spots in what authorities know about the suspects' plans.

Investigators are particularly disturbed that suspects in the investigation seem to know that the authorities are onto them but appear to be going ahead with their attack plans anyway. Authorities have so far been unable to collect enough evidence to bring criminal charges—which could help get the suspects off the street.