Al Qaeda Threat Has Increased, Tenet Says
Panel Told Recent Attacks Evoke Pre-9/11 Dangers

By Dana Priest and Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 18, 2002; Page A01

 

The recent series of terrorist attacks abroad signals a dramatic escalation of the threat al Qaeda poses to United States, a danger level similar to the period just before the Sept. 11 attacks, CIA Director George J. Tenet told Congress yesterday.

"The threat environment we find ourselves in today is as bad as it was last summer," Tenet told the joint House-Senate panel examining the performance of U.S. intelligence agencies before the attacks on New York and Washington. "They are reconstituted. They are coming after us. They are planning in multi-theaters. They are planning to strike the homeland again."

Tenet said he had met with Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge yesterday and will meet with him again today, adding that administration officials have "taken action in sectors we're most concerned about."

Other intelligence officials said analysts who have followed the string of terror attacks the past two weeks in Yemen, Kuwait and Bali said they are particularly concerned about strikes on oil shipments from the Middle East and on targets in the United States described only as "economic."

The threat information has often proved real, even when details such as time or location are not known. Earlier this month a French oil tanker was attacked off the Yemeni coast by terrorists believed to be part of al Qaeda. U.S. officials learned from interviews with Muhammad Darbi, an al Qaeda member captured in Yemen in August, that a Yemen cell was planning an attack on a Western oil tanker, sources said.

Similarly, in late September, U.S. intelligence officials learned of a communication from leaders of the South Asian terrorist group Jamaat Islamiyyah directing followers to attack Western targets, including tourist sites such as Bali, government sources said.

As was the case in the months before the Sept. 11 attacks, when Tenet tried urgently to alert administration officials to an imminent, if unspecified threat, the director of central intelligence said yesterday that he did not know the dates, times or places likely to be struck in the future.

Despite the heightened concern about the threat, the administration has so far decided that the information is too generalized to raise the nation's alert status from its current yellow or "elevated" risk level to orange or "high" risk, officials said last night.

The FBI sent out an alert to law enforcement agencies eight days ago warning of a heightened risk of attack after the release of separate communications, purportedly from al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his second-in-command, Ayman Zawahiri. The warning also followed the shooting of a Marine in Kuwait and the attack on the oil tanker off Yemen. Since then, U.S. officials have worked closely with operators of key facilities, such as nuclear and water treatment plants, and government officials to arrive at a proper response.

Tenet's assessment came during the last public session of the joint panel convened to investigate the intelligence community's handling of information before the Sept. 11 attacks, a 61/2-hour hearing that also included FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, director of the National Security Agency.

All three, responding to what has been a barrage of criticism over missed clues and poor communication among their agencies, conceded that mistakes had been made, but praised their employees as hardworking heroes.

They said they had instituted new information-sharing and warning systems, and had, in general, increased the number of human intelligence sources, linguists and covert operations to better handle future threats. Under questioning, all three said no individual at their agencies had been punished or fired for any of the missteps surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks.

This did not satisfy several panel members, who argued forcefully that individuals in the three agencies should be held personally responsible for what amounts to a huge failure.

"People have to be held accountable," said Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.). He was particularly concerned that while the CIA identified two of the hijackers as suspected terrorists in early 2001, an agency employee had failed to put the names on a State Department watch list until late August of that year. By then, Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, both of whom would later take part in the Sept. 11 attacks, were already in the country.

Tenet faulted "uneven standards, poor training and lack of redundancy" in the watch-listing system at the time. "The notion that I'm going to take her out and shoot her is ridiculous," he said of the CIA employee.

"Accountability is important but we need to be careful. There was no intent to withhold information . . . if anyone is going to take responsibility, I take responsibility."

"Good!" came a voice from the side of the witness table, where Sally Regenhard sat with a photo of her son Christopher, a firefighter who was killed at the World Trade Center.

Tenet warned the panel that intelligence agencies will never be infallible and that the nation must bolster homeland security precautions. Referring to legislation to establish a Homeland Security Department, now mired in Congress, he said: "You better get it done. Don't wait for us to tell you [al Qaeda] is on top of us."

Tenet also told the panel in written testimony that the CIA believes Almihdhar and Alhazmi were actually in the country not for the Sept. 11 strike but for another al Qaeda operation. The pair operated on a different timetable than the other hijackers and received special training in Afghanistan in 1999 with operatives who planned and executed the Oct. 12, 2000, attack on the USS Cole, Tenet noted.

"We speculate that this difference may be explained by the possibility that the two men originally entered the U.S. to carry out a different terrorist operation prior to being folded into the 9/11 plot," Tenet noted in written testimony submitted to the panel.

CIA officials said after the hearing that they do not know what other plot the men might have been trying to complete. In his written testimony, Tenet said the men may have been inserted as last-minute recruits in the Sept. 11 plot when two other would-be hijackers were unable to obtain visas. They are Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni national who was captured in Pakistan last month, and Moroccan Zakaria Essabar

 

 

 

 


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