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Al Qaeda Lurking in U.S., FBI Warns

Hundreds of terrorists are plotting attacks, but the agency has no idea where many are.

February 12, 2003|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Hundreds of Al Qaeda operatives are in hiding throughout the United States planning potentially catastrophic attacks, and the FBI does not know who or where many of them are, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told lawmakers Tuesday.

Mueller's warning was the latest in a flurry of dire pronouncements from top counterterrorism officials, all but predicting attacks against Americans both overseas and on U.S. soil.

CIA Director George J. Tenet, appearing alongside Mueller on Capitol Hill, said the government's recent decision to alert the nation of a "high risk" of terrorist attacks was based on intelligence reports that are "the most specific we have seen," including indications that Al Qaeda might be planning to use chemical, biological and radioactive weapons.

"The information we have points to plots aimed at targets on two fronts -- in the United States and on the Arabian Peninsula," Tenet told members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. "The intelligence is not idle chatter."

Mueller said his disclosures about terrorism activity in the United States -- among his most extensive to date -- were based, in part, on myriad investigations dating back to the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.

His testimony and a written statement were rife with both warnings and claims of success in thwarting terrorist strikes. But Mueller stressed that while the FBI is doing all it can to protect Americans, it faces an impossible task that by its very nature cannot be successful all of the time.

"Despite the progress the United States has made in disrupting the Al Qaeda network overseas and within our own country, the organization maintains the ability and the intent to inflict significant casualties in the United States with little warning," Mueller said. "Our greatest threat is from Al Qaeda cells in the United States that we have not yet been able to identify."

There have been significant gains in the war on terrorism, Mueller said, with hundreds of arrests, 197 "suspected terrorists" charged in the United States and 99 convictions so far since the Sept. 11 attacks.

There have been no prosecutions, however, of someone charged with plotting terrorist activity on U.S. soil, authorities say.

"But make no mistake," Mueller said, "the enemies we face are resourceful, merciless and fanatically committed to inflicting massive damage on our homeland, which they regard as the bastion of evil."

Some of these terrorists could have been lurking in the United States and planning major attacks for several years, according to the FBI director and other federal law enforcement officials.

Mueller did not offer specifics about how authorities arrived at the estimated numbers of U.S.-based Al Qaeda associates, and lawmakers did not press him on the figures. FBI officials said the bureau would not elaborate beyond Mueller's public remarks. He also briefed the senators in a classified, closed-door session.

In his public comments, Mueller disclosed that:

* FBI investigations have revealed "an extensive militant Islamic presence in the U.S., as well as a number of groups that are capable of launching terrorist attacks here."

* Although the Al Qaeda network remains the most urgent threat with at least several hundred members hiding in the United States, there are other dangerous Islamic terrorist groups operating within the U.S. in tandem with Al Qaeda or on their own.

* A so-called second front in the terrorism war is evolving, with an increasing number of individuals who could launch terrorist acts out of sympathy or indirect affiliation with Al Qaeda cells. They would operate without the kind of external support or co-conspirators that could draw the attention of the FBI.

* While some of the organized terrorists hiding in the United States are relative newcomers, others are believed to belong to far more established networks that significantly predate the Sept. 11 attacks. The testimony from Mueller, Tenet and other counterterrorism leaders came during an annual hearing designed to brief members of the intelligence community on the status of various foreign threats the United States faces. Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and Carl Ford, assistant secretary of State for intelligence research, also testified.

Mueller's remarks about terrorists in the United States seemed all but ignored by senators intent on focusing the debate on the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and his alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Many senators grilled both Tenet and Mueller on the subject, as well as on Hussein's alleged ties to Al Qaeda.

During his presentation, Tenet backed away from assertions by other government officials that there are direct ties between Hussein and Al Qaeda, saying he knew only that some Al Qaeda members had been provided safe haven in Iraq recently.

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