The warning came in chilling testimony by CIA Director George Tenet and FBI chief Robert Mueller before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“The network is extensive and adaptable,” Tenet said of al-Qaida. “It will take years of determined effort to unravel this and other terrorist networks and stamp them out.”
Specifically the CIA chief said recent intelligence pointed to a possible terrorist strike in the next week using a so-called “dirty bomb” that uses conventional explosives to spread radiation.
He added the information was “not idle chatter on the part of terrorists and their associates,” but was some of the most specific that U.S. intelligence agencies had seen.
“The information we have points to plots aimed at targets on two fronts — in the United States and on the Arabian peninsula,” Tenet said. “It points to plots timed to occur as early as the end of the Haj, which occurs late this week… And it points to plots that could include the use of a radiological dispersion device as well as poisons and chemicals.”
Mueller outlined the continuing efforts within the U.S. to track and monitor potential “sleeper cells” of al-Qaida agents. He warned that some cells have probably been in the United States since well before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania that killed some 3,000 Americans.
“The enemies we face are resourceful, merciless and fanatically committed to inflicting massive damage on our homeland, which they regard as a bastion of evil,” Mueller said. “In this war, there can be no compromise or negotiated settlement.”
Tenet also told the committee that some al-Qaida cells have taken shape in Iraq and Iran.
“We see disturbing signs that al-Qaida has established a presence in both Iran and Iraq,” he said. “In addition we are concerned that al-Qaida continues to find refuge in the hinterlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
Tenet’s comments came as Secretary of State Colin Powell told a second Senate committee that he had read a transcript of a taped message from Osama bin Laden discussing al-Qaida’s relationship with Iraq.
Powell said the Arab language satellite channel Al-Jazeera would broadcast a tape later Tuesday, “where once again [Osama bin Laden] speaks to the people of Iraq and talks about their struggle and how he is in partnership with Iraq.”
Although members of Congress have sought reforms of the FBI and CIA and many have questioned whether the intelligence community could have done more to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said the two agencies had done much to make the U.S. safer.
“But I also want to make clear, that our intelligence agencies have, for the most part, reacted to the crisis of September 11th in ways that should make all Americans proud,” Roberts said in opening comments. “Whatever problems may have existed before, the intelligence community today is a very different place than it was before the attacks upon the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.”
The unclassified portion of the hearing lasted more than two hours. Mueller and Tenet were expected to give the committee a classified briefing on terrorism later in the day.