Al-Qaeda said almost ready to attack United States

By Noble Johns

The United States has credible intelligence from multiple sources that al-Qaeda is determined to launch an attack in the United States in the coming months that could be linked to events such as an upcoming international economic summit and the summer political conventions, Attorney General John Ashcroft said Wednesday.

Ashcroft said the intelligence, coupled with recent public statements attributed to al-Qaeda, "suggest that it is almost ready to attack the United States." The withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq due to the political repercussions of the March 11 train bombings in Spain, Ashcroft added, could lead al-Qaeda to attempt to influence U.S. politics.

"Credible intelligence from multiple sources indicates that al-Qaeda intends to attempt an attack on the United States in the next few months," Ashcroft said.

"This disturbing intelligence indicates al-Qaeda's specific intention to hit the United States hard," he said.

In particular, Ashcroft said, seven people being sought by the United States "all present a clear and present danger to America. All should be considered armed and dangerous."

The warning was not accompanied by an increase in the U.S. terror alert status, however.

"Several upcoming events in the next few months may suggest especially inviting targets for an al-Qaeda attack," he said.

The intelligence does not contain specifics such as timing, method or place of an attack, officials said. But they say it is highly credible and backed with greater corroboration than usual, including information that operatives may already be in the United States.

Ashcroft, appearing with FBI Director Robert Mueller, drew new attention to photos of seven suspected al-Qaeda operatives that the FBI has been pursuing for months. They include Adnan G. El Shukrijumah, a Saudi native who once lived in Florida, and Aafia Siddiqui, a woman from Pakistan who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

FBI Director Robert Mueller, who appeared with Ashcroft, cited a "heightened threat to United States' interests around the world. ....We do not know what form the threat might take."

To focus on the threat, the FBI has established a 2004 Threat Task Force and FBI analysts are reviewing previously collected intelligence to see if it contains any clues to the latest threat, Ashcroft said. There will also be a series of interviews conducted by the FBI with individuals who could have information about potential plots.

The attorney general asked for assistance for the public, and said the FBI would coordinate a massive information-exchanging operation with state and local law enforcement authorities for the next several months.

Ashcroft also said that recent intelligence indicates that al-Qaeda operatives now may be traveling with their families to attract less suspicion and that the terror network has been seeking recruits "who can portray themselves as European."

Asked if New York and Boston residents should leave their cities during the Republican and Democratic political conventions, Ashcroft said, "We certainly don't come to that conclusion." Mueller said "extraordinary precautions" are being taken to protect the cities during the conventions, and both men said they had no information of specific threats against any city.

Noting there had been no domestic terrorism incidents since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Ashcroft said, "We are winning the war on terror, but we should never forget that it's a war."

Report: 18,000 al Qaeda fighters

Despite losses around the world, al Qaeda has more than 18,000 potential terrorists, and its ranks are growing because of the conflict in Iraq, a leading think tank warned Tuesday.

Al Qaeda still has a functioning leadership despite the death or capture of key figures, and estimates suggest al Qaeda operates in more than 60 nations around the world, the International Institute of Strategic Studies said in its Strategic Survey 2003-4.

The terrorist group poses a growing threat to Western interests and attacks are likely to increase, the institute said.

"Al Qaeda must be expected to keep trying to develop more promising plans for terrorist operations in North America and Europe, potentially involving weapons of mass destruction," institute director John Chipman told a news conference to launch the annual survey.

At the same time, it will continue carrying out attacks on "soft targets encompassing Americans, Europeans and Israelis and aiding the insurgency in Iraq," he added.

The estimate of 18,000 fighters was based on intelligence estimates that al Qaeda trained at least 20,000 fighters in its training camps in Afghanistan before the United States and its allies ousted the Taliban regime. In the ensuing war on terror, some 2,000 al Qaeda fighters have been killed or captured, the survey said.

The United States remains al Qaeda's prime target, the report said. An al Qaeda leader has said 4 million Americans will have to be killed "as a prerequisite to any Islamic victory," the survey said.

Iraq has become the new magnet of al Qaeda's war against the United States and up to 1,000 foreign Islamic fighters have infiltrated Iraqi territory, where they are cooperating with Iraqi forces, the survey said.

Al Qaeda appears to have successfully reconstituted its operations in dispersed groups and through local allies since being driven out of Afghanistan, the survey said.

"The Madrid bombings in March 2004 suggested that al Qaeda had fully reconstituted, set its sights firmly on the U.S. and its closest Western allies in Europe, and established a new and effective modus operandi," the survey said.

The U.S.-led war in Iraq has increased the risk to Western interests in Arab countries, the survey said.

The West and its allies must continue to mount a major offensive against al Qaeda and progress will be incremental, the report said. Any security offensive against al Qaeda must be accompanied with political developments, such as the democratization of Iraq and the resolution of conflict in Israel, it said.

Progress against al Qaeda "is likely to accelerate only with currently elusive political developments that would broadly depress recruitment and motivation," the report said.

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