22 July 2004: Al Qaeda members captured in recent weeks in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan have provided important information about a possible impending terrorist attack on the scale of Sept. 11, 2001, senior intelligence officials said.
The interrogations of the Qaeda members have been a major factor in raising American concerns about a possible attack to a level not seen since Sept. 11, the intelligence officials said. They said that the captured members of Al Qaeda had provided clues that traced planning for a major attack back to the group’s central leadership, including Osama bin Laden, who is believed to be in the Afghan-Pakistan border region.
“We don’t have specificity to exact time, place or location,” a senior intelligence official said. “But it’s more than just them saying generally that there’s something coming.”
American officials have warned for the last two weeks about such an attack, but have refused to describe the source of their information. But with the release of the report by the Sept. 11 commission, the officials said they wanted to be as precise as possible about the foundation for the current concern.
“I wouldn’t characterize what we have now as chatter,” a senior Central Intelligence Agency official said. “I think we have some fairly specific information that Al Qaeda wants to come after us.” The senior C.I.A. official, a counterterrorism expert, added, “This is serious.”
One senior intelligence official said that there was “no doubt” that Mr. bin Laden and other leaders of Al Qaeda remain very much focused on carrying out a new attack in the United States or on American targets overseas. Senior C.I.A. officials described Al Qaeda’s leadership as having been very much weakened by American-led actions since Sept. 11, but they would offer no prediction for when Mr. bin Laden might be captured.
“We’re looking for one person here in a part of the world where not many people have gone before,” a senior C.I.A. official said, in an apparent allusion to the rugged, mountainous border region where Mr. bin Laden is still believed to be hiding.
Two counterterrorism officials based in Europe said that an intelligence breakthrough pointing to such a renewed threat had come about six weeks ago. The officials suggested that the information was based on both human and technical intelligence, but they refused to be more specific. A third intelligence official said the recent interrogations of Al Qaeda members had provided important leads.
The warnings come despite what both the commission, in its 571-page report, and three senior C.I.A. officials, at a briefing at the agency’s headquarters, describe as major achievements since Sept. 11 in a war that has focused on Al Qaeda and its leadership. Both the commission and the C.I.A. officials described the United States as being safer today than it was on Sept. 11, but both detailed twin threats that remain, from remnants of Al Qaeda’s old leadership as well as the broader, militant Muslim movement it has inspired.
“You’re seeing parallel things going on,” said a senior C.I.A. official involved with counterterrorism. “Al Qaeda central is plotting, and we think they’re involved in some of the current plotting. And you also have in parallel a global movement of people, not necessarily close to or linked to Al Qaeda, but who themselves are plotting as well. So that gives you a picture of the world.”
Among the senior intelligence officials who have described the current threat environment as the most worrying since the months before the Sept. 11 has been John E. McLaughlin, the acting director of central intelligence. Compared with that period, other intelligence officials said, current intelligence-gathering has not included as many intercepted communications suggesting that an attack might be imminent.
But the intelligence officials say that the current information has been specific, consistent and solid, and comes from multiple sources. They declined to identify the captured Al Qaeda members who have provided the most important information but said they regarded it as credible. They said it had led them to believe that Mr. bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, regarded possible operations in the United States as falling very much under their authority.
The intelligence officials said they regarded Al Qaeda as much less capable than it was at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks. Many of its known leaders at the time of those attacks have been killed or arrested, they noted, while military operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen have eliminated many of the agency’s sanctuaries.
“If you look at the capability of the people who came after us before Sept. 11 in terms of safe haven, in terms of financial security, in terms of ability to plan, their world is upside down,” the C.I.A. counterterrorism official said. “I cannot come away from that with any conclusion other than that we are substantially safer today than we were three years ago. They could plan, they could raise funds, they could do it in an environment that they thought they were relatively secure with a partner whom they supported that was the Taliban. That does not exist anymore. ”
Still, a second, senior C.I.A. official said of Al Qaeda: “It is not mutually exclusive to say that it has been weakened, but it’s still very dangerous. They take a long time to plan operations.”
“Even though we’ve been hurting them, they’ve been planning things over a long period of time,” the senior C.I.A. official said. “There are certain periods when your guard has to be up, and this is one of them for a variety of reasons that are quite solid in their sourcing. But it’s also true that they don’t strike until they’re ready. So this is an organization that surveils, does homework, prepares, is careful.”
The C.I.A. officials spoke at a briefing on Wednesday at the agency’s headquarters. They spoke on condition of anonymity, and under an agreement that their remarks would not be reported until after the commission made its report public on Thursday morning.
The commission report echoed recent warnings by George J. Tenet, who stepped down this month as director of central intelligence, in saying that the most worrying aspect of Mr. bin Laden’s organization might be the degree to which it had inspired a broader ideological movement among a new generation of terrorists.
“The problem is that Al Qaeda represents an ideological movement, not a finite group of people,” the report said in its executive summary. “It initiates and inspires, even if it no longer directs. In this way, it has transformed itself into a decentralized force.
“Bin Laden may be limited in his ability to organize major attacks from his hideouts,” the Sept. 11 report continued. “Yet killing or capturing him, while extremely important, would not end terror. His message of inspiration to a new generation of terrorists would continue.”