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Six years on, Al-Qaida stronger despite bombings and war
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09:45, July 13, 2007

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A new threat assessment from US counter-terrorism analysts says Al-Qaida has used its safe haven along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to restore its operating capabilities to a level unseen since the months before September 11, 2001.

A counter-terrorism official familiar with a five-page summary of the document - Al-Qaida Better Positioned to Strike the West - called it a stark appraisal. The analysis will be part of a broader meeting at the White House yesterday (early this morning Beijing time) about an upcoming National Intelligence Estimate. The official and others spoke to the Associated Press on condition they not be identified because the report remains classified.

The findings suggest that the network that launched the most devastating terror attack on US soil has been able to regroup despite nearly six years of bombings, war and other tactics aimed at dismantling it.

The threat assessment focuses on the terror group's safe haven in Pakistan and makes a range of observations about the threat posed to the US and its allies, officials said.

Counter-terrorism officials have been increasingly concerned over Al-Qaida's recent operations. Earlier this week, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said he had a "gut feeling" that the US faced a heightened risk of attack this summer. Still, numerous government officials say they know of no specific, credible threat of a new attack on US soil.

Al-Qaida is "considerably operationally stronger than a year ago" and has "regrouped to an extent not seen since 2001," the counter-terrorism official said, paraphrasing the report's conclusions. "They are showing greater and greater ability to plan attacks in Europe and the US."

The group also has created "the most robust training program since 2001, with an interest in using European operatives," the official quoted the report as saying.

At the same time, the report speaks of "significant gaps in intelligence" so US authorities may be ignorant of potential or planned attacks, the official said.

John Kringen, who heads the CIA's analysis directorate, echoed the concerns over Al-Qaida's resurgence during testimony and conversations with reporters at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday. "They seem to be fairly well settled into the safe haven and the ungoverned spaces of Pakistan," Kringen testified. "We see more training. We see more money. We see more communications. We see that activity rising."

The threat assessment comes as the 16 US intelligence agencies prepare a National Intelligence Estimate focusing on threats to the US. A senior intelligence official, who, too, spoke on condition of anonymity while the high-level analysis was being completed, said the document has been in the works for roughly two years.

Kringen and aides to National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell would not comment on the details of that analysis. "Preparation of the estimate is not a response to any specific threat," McConnell's spokesman Ross Feinstein said. It probably will be ready for distribution this summer.

Kringen said he wouldn't attach a summer time frame to the concern. In studying the threat, he said he begins with the premise that Al-Qaida would consider attacking the US a "home run hit" and that the easiest way to get into the US would be through Europe.

Several European countries - among them Britain, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands - are highlighted in the threat assessment partly because they have arrangements with the Pakistani government that allow their citizens easier access to Pakistan than others, according to the counter-terrorism official. This is more troubling because all four are part of the US visa waiver program, and their citizens can enter the US without additional security scrutiny.

The Bush administration has repeatedly cited Al-Qaida as a key justification for continuing the fight in Iraq. "The No. 1 enemy in Iraq is Al-Qaida," White House press secretary Tony Snow said on Wednesday. "Al-Qaida continues to be the chief organizer of mayhem in Iraq."

The findings could bolster the president's hand at a moment when support on Capitol Hill for the war is eroding and the administration is struggling to defend its decision for a military build-up in Iraq.

The threat assessment says Al-Qaida stepped up efforts to "improve its core operational capability" in late 2004 but did not succeed until December of 2006 after the Pakistani government signed a peace agreement with tribal leaders that effectively removed military presence from the northwest frontier with Afghanistan.

The agreement allows Taliban and Al-Qaida operatives to move across the border with impunity and establish and run training centers, the official quoted the report as saying. It also says that Al-Qaida is particularly interested in building up the numbers in its middle ranks, or operational positions, so there is not as great a lag in attacks when such people are killed.

"Being No. 3 in Al-Qaida is a bad job. We regularly get to the No. 3 person," Tom Fingar, the top US intelligence analyst, told the House panel.

The report also notes that Al-Qaida has increased its public statements, although analysts stressed that those video and audio messages aren't reliable indicators of the actions the group may take.

Source: China Daily/Agencies

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