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Al-Qaida Remains Persistent Threat to U.S., Report Says

July 17, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret Warner has our coverage of the new intelligence estimate on al-Qaida.

MARGARET WARNER: Nearly six years after the U.S. set out to destroy al-Qaida, the terrorist network has regenerated key elements of its ability to attack the United States and is intensifying its efforts to put operatives here. That was the sobering assessment released by U.S. intelligence agencies today in a partially declassified National Intelligence Estimate, or NIE.

Among the elements al-Qaida has protected or regenerated, it said, are: safe haven in Pakistan; operational lieutenants; and a cadre of top leadership. As a consequence, the NIE states, the U.S. is in a heightened threat environment.

The NIE also says that al-Qaida will continue enhancing its capacity to attack the U.S. through greater cooperation with regional terrorist groups, especially al-Qaida in Iraq. The president’s homeland security adviser, Frances Townsend, was pressed about the relationship between al-Qaida and al-Qaida in Iraq, two groups the president regularly equates.

FRANCES TOWNSEND, Homeland Security Adviser: I think there’s a tendency to try and suggest that al-Qaida core and al-Qaida in Iraq are two separate things. Let’s step back for a minute, because I think that is not accurate. That same al-Qaida headed by bin Laden is the same al-Qaida that Zarqawi, when he becomes the emir of al-Qaida in Iraq, swears fayat, or loyalty, to. So it’s the same organization.

JOURNALIST: The president was warned before the war that this was actually going to help al-Qaida gain influence. Now you have a report suggesting maybe it has gained influence from the war in Iraq. Isn’t that something that the president ignored?

FRANCES TOWNSEND: But you’re assuming this is a zero-sum game, which is what I don’t understand. The fact is, we were harassing them in Afghanistan. We’re harassing them in Iraq. We’re harassing them in other ways non-militarily around the world. And the answer is, every time you poke the hornet’s nest, they are bound to come back and push back on you. That doesn’t suggest to me that we shouldn’t be doing it.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressional Democrats quickly seized on the report. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said the report “raises serious questions about this administration’s anti-terror strategy, as well as its continued insistence that the war in Iraq is the central front in the war on terror.”

Threat greater than a year ago

John McLaughlin
Former CIA Official
This is a global insurgency. There are three things you have to do to defeat a global insurgency, and we're having trouble with each of them. First, you've got to destroy the leadership.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on this, we turn to two veterans of the intelligence community and of the National Intelligence Estimate process. John McLaughlin is the former acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He's now a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University. And Paul Pillar was the national intelligence officer for Near East and South Asia at the National Intelligence Council from 2000 to 2005. He also served as deputy chief of the counterterrorism center at the CIA.

Welcome to you both, gentlemen.

John McLaughlin, let me start with you with the bottom-line question here: Is this NIE saying that the threat of an al-Qaida attack on the United States is now greater than it was, say, a year or two ago?

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN, Former Acting Director, CIA: Yes, yes, Margaret. The NIE is not saying that there is a specific report about a specific group with a specific target. But the NIE is saying a number of strategic trends have converged here to raise the threat level.

Some of them are laid out in the estimate; there are more that have been laid out by some of the outside observers of terrorism. You mentioned some of them, the reestablishment of the safe haven, the fact that the leadership is still there, the fact that they've been resilient after a number of attacks, the fact that they have now more affiliates globally than they used to, most recently in Algeria, and the fact that they are increasing their propaganda output dramatically.

And we now see, of course, linkages between what happened in London, not in the latest attack yet, but certainly in the preceding attacks, and al-Qaida central. For example, the airline plot that was disrupted some months ago had the fingerprints of Hamzi Rabi on it, who was then their operational chief, now dead.

If I could sum this up, I would say this: This is a global insurgency. There are three things you have to do to defeat a global insurgency, and we're having trouble with each of them. First, you've got to destroy the leadership.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me interrupt first and just get Paul Pillar's assessment of what the NIE bottom line is saying. Do you agree that it is saying that the threat of an attack here in the U.S. is greater than a year or two ago? And what would you add to the list of particulars that John McLaughlin just laid out as to why?

PAUL PILLAR, Former Deputy Director, CIA Counterterrorism Center: I would agree, Margaret. And in addition to what John said, one other distinction I'd make is between al-Qaida central and the larger jihadist movement. I think a case can be made that if you're talking just about al-Qaida central, the particular group led by bin Laden and Zawahiri, that many of the damaging blows that have been inflicted on them, and about which the administration rightly talks has perhaps made it weaker than it was on the eve of 9/11, but that's more than offset, in my view -- and I think in the view of the estimators who wrote this estimate -- by the growth and the energy exemplified by the larger movement.

MARGARET WARNER: But did you also see a change in tone about even the core al-Qaida organization? I mean, the '06 NIE, they talked about al-Qaida having been seriously damaged and that the global jihadist movement, I'm reading here, is "decentralized, lacks a coherent global strategy, and is becoming more diffuse." The picture of the core leadership here did seem different.

PAUL PILLAR: Yes, at least as a matter of emphasis. And one of the stories that we've seen quite a bit of reporting on over the last year-and-a-half, two years, has to do with that reconstitution of al-Qaida central and their Taliban allies along the Durand line, the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. We hear about all the troublesome efforts that Pakistan has tried to make in north Waziristan. And that, indeed, accounts for this change in tone.

Safe haven issue critical

John McLaughlin
Former CIA Official
When the Pakistani conventional forces were up along that border harassing the extremists, they had trouble getting themselves organized. After Musharraf's deals with the local tribals, the pressure has been off.

MARGARET WARNER: John McLaughlin, you cited a lot of newer developments, but how much of this slight shift in emphasis and shift definitely in the assessment reflects new elements, and how much reflects old signs that are now being looked at in a new way?

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: I think it's a mixture of both, Margaret. The classic elements you look at in counterinsurgency as in counterterrorism, have you damaged the leadership? Well, we've damaged it somewhat, but not completely. Have you denied them a safe haven? Well, we did for a while, but they have one back. Have you changed the conditions that give rise to the insurgency? Well, we haven't done too well on that.

So all of those things have been present from the beginning as objectives, and we've done well, in the first couple of years after 9/11, very well. And in recent years -- and I think the safe haven issue is really a critical one here. When the Pakistani conventional forces were up along that border harassing the extremists, they had trouble getting themselves organized. After Musharraf's deals with the local tribals, the pressure has been off, and they've been able to establish a toehold again in Afghanistan.

So there are things here that are new and some things that are old. If you wanted to look at something in the future, for example, demographic trends, Europe's population is flat or negative. Population is expanding dramatically in the Islamic world. That portends in the future increased migration from the Islamic world to Europe, probably into ghettos, where people are not well-assimilated, raising the prospect of increased recruitment by extremists.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you about a particularly chilling observation in this NIE, Paul Pillar, there is an intensified effort to plant operatives inside the United States. What did that say to you?

PAUL PILLAR: Well, I think that's -- the attempt to do it or at least the aspiration to do it has been there all along.

A twist in recruitment

Paul Pillar
Former CIA Official
The so-called doctors plot that we saw recently in the United Kingdom had a different twist to it. These were not people from the proletariat. These were highly educated professionals.

MARGARET WARNER: They're saying the efforts are actually intensifying. In what way, do you think?

PAUL PILLAR: Well, it could take a number of forms. One of the biggest ones, I think, is attempted recruitment of people who don't fit the stereotype profile of a Middle Eastern or South Asian Muslim.

And, indeed, you can go farther than that: The so-called doctors plot that we saw recently in the United Kingdom had a different twist to it. These were not people from the proletariat. These were highly educated professionals. And I suspect whatever may be going on in the United States or what al-Qaida may be attempting in the United States might have that particular twist, as well.

MARGARET WARNER: John McLaughlin, do you agree that's the new model that the intelligence community is worried about?

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Yes, I do. I think what we have to worry about here -- and the British plot, as Paul indicated, is emblematic -- they'll change the profile. The next attack in the United States will not be carried out by people who look like the attackers of 9/11. It likely will be carried out by people who have some legitimate business being here and who do not strike everyone in the aftermath as having been here on some odd mission or having behaved oddly.

There's a likelihood that they would come in on European passports, because that's something that one can do easily. Al-Qaida in Iraq has recruited in Europe. And as I mentioned earlier, there will be increased migration to Europe, which will perhaps facilitate opportunities for extremist recruiters.

Role of al-Qaida in Iraq

Paul Pillar
Former CIA Official
I would expect that the calculations back with bin Laden and Zawahiri are to put out as many different possibilities as they can on the board with the expectation that only one or a few are going to pay off.

MARGARET WARNER: The headline grabbing, at least the early headlines out of this today, Paul Pillar, had to do with the relationship between al-Qaida central and al-Qaida in Iraq. And this line, it was sort of two sentences about, "In enhancing its capability to attack the U.S., al-Qaida will try to leverage its contacts and capabilities with regional groups, including those with al-Qaida in Iraq."

Is this NIE saying that al-Qaida central will turn to al-Qaida in Iraq to mount attacks in the U.S.? And if so, why? Why does it need al-Qaida in Iraq to do what it did fairly successfully in 9/11?

PAUL PILLAR: Well, it's not a matter of needing because it can do it. Al-Qaida central is going to try to fire on all cylinders and leverage everything they can to its advantage. And one of the things it can leverage is, in the words of the estimate released today, its connections and links to regional terrorist groups of like mind, most notably al-Qaida in Iraq.

So it's just one more lever that the people back in South Asia have to try to pull. And you have to realize to pull off a terrorist attack, especially a major one and especially one here in the U.S. homeland, is a big challenge. And I would expect that the calculations back with bin Laden and Zawahiri are to put out as many different possibilities as they can on the board with the expectation that only one or a few are going to pay off.

MARGARET WARNER: And, John McLaughlin, do you think that al-Qaida in Iraq has somehow got a greater capability or ability to penetrate U.S. defenses than al-Qaida central?

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: I wouldn't see that they have a greater capability with operatives that they necessarily have on the ground in Iraq right now. They're going to focus on their Iraq mission. But what al-Qaida in Iraq brings to the party for al-Qaida is a tremendous fundraising capability, and that translates to capabilities. They also bring a very powerful narrative to al-Qaida's propaganda machine.

And, as I mentioned earlier, they have a recruiting network in both the Maghreb, North Africa, and in Europe. People from Maghreb can go to Europe pretty easily. And so I think -- it's not so much a matter of them sending operatives directly here from Baghdad. It's more a matter of using their leverage outside of Iraq to organize an effort to come here.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. We have to leave it there, John McLaughlin, Paul Pillar, thank you both.