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16 February 2005

Al-Qaida Remains Grave Threat to United States, FBI and CIA Say

Terrorist groups actively seeking weapons of mass destruction

By Merle D. Kellerhals, Jr.
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- The directors of the CIA and FBI told a Senate committee that the threat posed by international terrorism, and al-Qaida in particular, remains the gravest security threat facing the United States.

"It may be only a matter of time before al-Qaida or other groups attempt to use chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons.  We must focus on that," CIA Director Porter J. Goss said before the Senate Intelligence Committee February 16.

"We know from experience that al-Qaida is a patient, persistent, imaginative, adaptive and dangerous opponent.  But it is vulnerable," he said.

Goss added that intelligence agencies in the past year, using aggressive measures with key international partners, have dealt serious blows to al-Qaida and other terror organizations.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller said al-Qaida's overall plan for attacking targets has adapted and evolved to circumvent enhanced security measures.

"Al-Qaida continues to adapt and move forward with its desire to attack the United States using any means at its disposal," Mueller said.  "Their intent to attack us at home remains, and their resolve to destroy America has never faltered."

Mueller said one of his greatest concerns is what he called "sleeper terrorists," who have been in place for years awaiting orders to launch an attack.  "I remain very concerned about what we are not seeing," he said.

Al-Qaida's most likely approach to a mass casualty attack on the United States would employ relatively low-tech methods, he said.  "[W]e are concerned that they are seeking weapons of mass destruction including chemical weapons, so-called 'dirty bombs' or some type of biological agent such as anthrax," Mueller said.

He warned the committee that the United States remains a high-value target to terrorists, and that besides the nation's capital, other targets include nuclear power plants, mass transit systems, bridges and tunnels, shipping and port facilities, financial centers and airports.

"We continue to be concerned that U.S. transportation systems remain a key target," Mueller said.  "The attacks in Madrid [Spain] last March show the devastation that a simple, low-tech operation can achieve and the resulting impact to the government and economy, which makes this type of attack in the U.S. particularly attractive to al-Qaida."

Mueller said other terrorist groups have been conducting extensive fundraising efforts, but federal agents continue to identify and block fund-raising channels, freeze assets, protect legitimate charities, and disrupt the movement of money through peripheral financial systems such as Hawalas.

In other potential threat areas, Goss said that 2004 began with progress as Libya renounced its weapons of mass destruction program, North Korea engaged in negotiations within its region on its nuclear weapons program, and Iran was showing greater signs of openness regarding its nuclear program.

Libya has been a success story for nonproliferation, he said.  North Korea, however, has announced it is suspending participation in the Six-Party Talks, under way since 2003, and has "declared it had nuclear weapons, and affirmed it would seek to increase its nuclear arsenal," Goss said.

In addition, North Korea continues to market its ballistic missile technology and has active chemical and biological weapons programs, he said.

Iran, Goss said, continues to pursue its ballistic missile program and continues to support terrorist groups in the region, such as Hizballah.

Goss said that in Africa chronic instability will continue to hamper counterterrorism efforts and pose heavy humanitarian and peacekeeping missions for the United States.

Senate Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts convened the hearing in a rare open session as part of the committee's oversight of the 15-agency U.S. intelligence community.  A comparable closed hearing will also be conducted.

Goss, Mueller and other intelligence officials -- including Vice Admiral Lowell Jacoby of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Deputy Homeland Security Secretary James Loy, and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Carol Rodley -- presented assessments at the annual open briefing on global threats confronting the United States.  The range of issues included the vacant position of director of national intelligence, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, China, Russia and other regions of the world.