WASHINGTON (AFP) – The head of the main US spy agency has warned that Al-Qaeda is training operatives who “look western” and could enter the United States undetected to conduct terrorist attacks.
Central Intelligence Agency Director General Michael Hayden also said the terror network, which over the past 18 months has established a “safe haven” in Pakistan’s tribal areas along the Afghanistan border, has shed its operational reliance on mastermind Osama bin Laden.
“They are bringing operatives into that region for training — operatives that, a phrase I would use, wouldn’t attract your attention if they were going through the customs line at Dulles (airport near Washington DC) with you,” Hayden told NBC television Sunday.
The new recruits “look western” and “would be able to come into this country … without attracting the kind of attention that others might,” he said.
Hayden pointed to improved intelligence techniques in the federally administered tribal areas, due to “good cooperation from a variety of allies” in Pakistan’s tribal regions, for the information on the Al-Qaeda recruits.
But much of the improvement was merely regaining ground that was lost through what Hayden described as an “absolutely disastrous” hands-off policy in the region by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in 2006 that led to Al-Qaeda’s increased organizational ability there.
“He was, in fact, pulling forces and the writ of the Pakistani government back from the tribal region, and Al-Qaeda and the Taliban were having more and more free reign there.”
In an annual threat assessment released in February, US intelligence reported it had detected an influx of new western recruits to Al-Qaeda safe havens in Pakistan’s federally administered tribal areas since 2006.
“Al-Qaeda is improving the last key aspect of its ability to attack the US — the identification, training, and positioning of operatives for an attack in the homeland,” the report said.
In presenting the report to Congress, US intelligence chief Mike McConnell also said that plots uncovered in New Jersey and Illinois this year “highlights the diverse threat posed by homeland-based radical Muslims inspired by extremist ideology.”
Hayden also stressed that while he was confident Al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden was still hiding out near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the Saudi-born fighter no longer has operational control over the terror network.
This now lies with Egyptian militants, he argued, although he said bin Laden remains an “iconic figure,” and the CIA is making “every effort to kill or capture” him along with his Al-Qaeda lieutenants.
“Let me use (the term) iconic figure. His presence … gives a certain punch, a certain image, to the global movement,” Hayden said.
“But he’s not operationally involved. An awful lot of the operational force of Al-Qaeda — the Arabic name is … often finished by the country they are from — an awful lot of them are al-Masris, which means ‘the Egyptians.'”
Al-Qaeda’s number two is Ayman Al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian militant who the US director of national intelligence Michael McConnell last September called “the real intellectual leader of Al-Qaeda.”
Bin Laden has claimed responsibility for the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, which killed nearly 3,000 people and prompted the US-led invasion of Afghanistan.