WASHINGTON (AP) -- The terrorist network Al-Qaeda will likely leverage its contacts and capabilities in Iraq to mount an attack on U.S. soil, according to a new National Intelligence Estimate on threats to the United States.
The declassified key findings, released Tuesday, laid out a range of dangers - from al-Qaeda to Lebanese Hezbollah to non-Muslim radical groups - that pose a "persistent and evolving threat" to the country over the next three years. As expected, however, the findings focus most of their attention on the gravest terror problem: Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.
The report makes clear that al-Qaeda in Iraq, which has not yet posed a direct threat to U.S. soil, could become a problem here.
"Of note," the analysts said, "we assess that al-Qaeda will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), its most visible and capable affiliate and the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the homeland."
The analysts also found that al-Qaeda’s association with its Iraqi affiliate helps the group to energize the broader Sunni Muslim extremist community, raise resources and recruit and indoctrinate operatives - "including for homeland attacks."
President Bush acknowledged that al-Qaeda is strong today, but he said it's not nearly as strong as it was prior to Sept. 11, 2001 because the United States has kept the pressure on - worked to "defeat them where we find them" - so they won't attack America.
"Al-Qaeda would have been a heck of a lot stronger today had we not stayed on the offensive," Bush said in the Oval Office after meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. "And it's in the interest of the United States to not only defeat them overseas so we don't have to face them here, but also to spread an ideology that will defeat their ideology every time - and that's the ideology based upon liberty."
National Intelligence Estimates are the most authoritative written judgments of the 16 spy agencies across the breadth of the U.S. government. These agencies reflect the consensus long-term thinking of top intelligence analysts. Portions of the documents are occasionally declassified for public release.
The White House brushed off critics who allege the administration released the intelligence estimate at the same time the Senate is debating Iraq. White House press secretary Tony Snow said critics are "engaged in a little selective hearing themselves to shape the story in their own political ways."
Democrats said the report was proof U.S. anti-terrorism efforts were being drained by the Iraq war.
"We must responsibly redeploy our troops out of Iraq, handing responsibility for security over to the Iraqis and leaving only those forces required for limited missions," said Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "This will allow us to concentrate our efforts on Afghanistan and the al-Qaeda terrorists who attacked us on 9/11."
The new report echoed statements made by senior intelligence officials over the last year, including the assessment of spy agencies that the country is in a "heightened threat environment." It also provided new details on their thinking and concerns.
For instance, the report says that worldwide counterterrorism efforts since 2001 have constrained al-Qaeda’s ability to attack the U.S. again and convinced terror groups that U.S. soil is a tougher target.
But, the report quickly adds, analysts are concerned "that this level of international cooperation may wane as 9/11 becomes a more distant memory and perceptions of the threat diverge."
Among the report's other findings:
-Al-Qaeda is likely to continue to focus on high-profile political, economic and infrastructure targets to cause mass casualties, visually dramatic destruction, economic aftershocks and fear. "The group is proficient with conventional small arms and improvised explosive devices and is innovative in creating new capabilities and overcoming security obstacles."
-The group has been able to restore key capabilities it would need to launch an attack on U.S. soil: a safe haven in Pakistan's tribal areas, operational lieutenants and senior leaders. U.S. officials have warned publicly that a deal between the Pakistani government and tribal leaders allowed al-Qaeda to plot and train more freely in parts of western Pakistan for the last 10 months.
-The group will continue to seek weapons of mass destruction - chemical, biological or nuclear material - and "would not hesitate to use them."
-Non-Muslim terrorist groups probably will attack here in the next several years, although on a smaller scale. The judgments don't name any specific groups, but the FBI often warns of violent environmental groups, such as Earth Liberation Front, and others.
The publicly disclosed judgments, laid out over two pages, are part of a longer document, which remains classified. It was approved by the heads of all 16 intelligence agencies on June 21.
The high-level estimate notes that the spread of radical ideas, especially on the Internet, growing anti-U.S. rhetoric and increasing numbers of radical cells throughout Western countries indicate the violent segments of the Muslim populations is expanding.
"The arrest and prosecution by U.S. law enforcement of a small number of violent Islamic extremists inside the United States ... points to the possibility that others may become sufficiently radicalized that they will view the use of violence here as legitimate," the estimate said. "We assess that this internal Muslim terrorist threat is not likely to be as severe as it is in Europe, however."
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