Al Qaeda is planning a mass-casualty attack to rival September 11, but preparations have been disrupted by arrests of terrorists during the past several months, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
Recent intelligence reports indicate that communications among clandestine cells of al Qaeda members are being restored gradually, the intelligence officials said.
“The attack will be large-scale,” one official said.
Additionally, the intelligence reports stated that any major attack is likely to be preceded by smaller-scale strikes, including assassinations of prominent people in the United States, the official said.
Officials did not provide details on the latest threat, which was contained in intelligence reports sent to senior Bush administration officials last week. The warning did not say whether the attacks would be in the United States or abroad.
“We continue to be in a heightened-threat environment,” said a U.S. official with access to intelligence reports who declined to comment further.
Scores of al Qaeda terrorists have been arrested in the past year in more than a dozen countries.
CIA Director George J. Tenet said in December that more than a third of the senior leaders of al Qaeda have been killed or captured and that half the successes against the group came in recent months.
Recent successes against al Qaeda leaders included the missile attack in Yemen that killed Qaed Senyan al-Harthi, who was linked to the October 2000 bombing of the destroyer USS Cole that killed 17 sailors. Other successes were the arrest in September of Ramzi Binalshib, believed to be the organizer of the September 11 attacks, and the arrests of numerous al Qaeda operations officers and facilitators.
Last week, authorities in Italy arrested 28 Pakistanis suspected of being part of an al Qaeda cell in Naples.
President Bush said yesterday that the danger from terrorism is growing because terrorists are seeking chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
“That is a fact,” Mr. Bush said. “If their ambitions were ever realized, they would set out to inflict catastrophic harm on the United States, with many times the casualties of September 11.”
Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the Homeland Security Department, had no immediate comment. But he noted that a major al Qaeda attack is “something we worry about all the time.”
Al Qaeda, the Islamist terror group headed by Osama bin Laden, has not conducted a major terrorist attack since last year. Several top al Qaeda leaders, including bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Khalid Sheik Mohammad, also remain at large. All are key figures behind the September 11 attacks.
Al Qaeda is suspected of carrying out the bombing at a nightclub in Bali, Indonesia, that killed nearly 200 people, mostly visiting foreigners.
The group also attacked a French oil tanker in Yemen and killed a U.S. Marine in Kuwait.
Bin Laden’s voice purportedly surfaced on an audiotape broadcast in November by the Qatari satellite television station Al Jazeera. In the message, the voice said that “it is time to get even.”
Mr. Tenet said in a speech Dec. 12 that the al Qaeda leadership has been disrupted by recent losses and is acting more cautious. “But let’s be very clear: There is no letup in the threat at the moment,” he said.
Mr. Tenet said more terrorist attacks are being planned by al Qaeda and that every captured al Qaeda member has confirmed that more strikes are planned. He noted that recent al Qaeda recordings threatening attacks on economic targets and U.S. allies were “unprecedented in their bluntness and urgency.”
A defense official said during a recent briefing for reporters that al Qaeda has been disrupted but is still dangerous. “We view al Qaeda as still a very potent threat,” the official said.
“Bin Laden basically always thought three steps ahead, would have plans in the works, multiple plans, not just one,” the official said. “Some of those plans, we believe, are still out there. Some of them could be quickly implemented, possibly, or at least reconstituted.”
Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said in November that al Qaeda poses the “most immediate and serious threat” of attack, despite the disruptions to the network of terrorists in 60 nations.
“The modus operandi of this organization emphasizes careful planning, tight operational security and exhaustive field preparations – the prerequisites for spectacular operation,” Mr. Ridge said.