Americans have gone more than one year without suffering a terrorist attack on their soil. But the director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and a senior Pentagon official have both issued dire warnings that Al-Qaeda is set to strike again.
Washington, 21 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Concern is rising among U.S. officials that Al-Qaeda, possibly in league with Iraq, is plotting yet another attack on the United States that could far outstrip the death toll of 3,000 from last year's terrorist strikes of 11 September.
George Tenet, director the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, has told the U.S. Congress that Americans could expect another massive attack from Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network.
Tenet cited recent terrorist attacks on a French oil tanker in Yemen and on U.S. troops in Kuwait and a blast in Bali that killed more than 180 mostly Western tourists as proof that Al-Qaeda is back in action. "The threat environment we find ourselves in today is as bad as it was last summer, the summer before 9-11. It is serious. [Al-Qaeda has] reconstituted. They are coming after us. They want to execute attacks," Tenet said.
Though hardly his first warning of possible attacks against the United States and other countries, Tenet's 17 October assessment was perhaps his starkest indication yet that the United States remains at imminent risk of another massive terrorist strike.
Tenet's message was echoed on 18 October, when the second in command at the Pentagon weighed in with his own dire warning.
Deputy Defense Minister Paul Wolfowitz, in a speech to a Washington think tank, said future attacks on the United States with weapons of mass destruction could possibly claim millions of lives, making the 11 September strike of last year look like child's play. "Remember, now the dangers we're talking about are not 3,000 Americans dead in a day, but 30,000, or 300,000, or even -- God forbid -- 3 million," Wolfowitz said.
Wolfowitz was referring to the possibility that Al-Qaeda terrorists obtain weapons of mass destruction, possibly from the government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and use them against the United States.
He spoke after CIA director Tenet told a joint congressional panel that despite the U.S.-led assault on Al-Qaeda and its Afghan Taliban hosts, bin Laden's terrorist network is alive and well.
Last week, Tenet sent a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee in which he made available to the public previously classified CIA testimony to the committee about Iraq and its alleged ties to Al-Qaeda.
The letter cites a senior CIA official as saying that Hussein is unlikely to launch an attack on the United States unless he is provoked -- a point some in the U.S. media took as proof that the CIA disagrees with the perceived rush to war on the part of some members of the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush.
In a public letter, Tenet subsequently denied any such disagreement between the CIA and the White House.
And Wolfowitz, in his speech, said the media had failed to focus on the most important part of Tenet's letter. "The facts that are in the George Tenet letter are facts about a decade of senior-level contacts between Iraq and Al-Qaeda; facts about Iraqi training of Al-Qaeda people, including in chemical and biological weapons; and facts about Iraq providing sanctuary for Al-Qaeda people, including senior Al-Qaeda people, including in Baghdad," Wolfowitz said.
U.S. intelligence officials say Al-Qaeda has decentralized after being driven out of Afghanistan by the U.S.-led war. Its top leaders are hiding and overseas cells are plotting their own attacks, which are often poorly funded and unsophisticated.
Some independent analysts dismiss any link between Islamist Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, who has always been secular. Others say the Iraqi leader has recently sought to associate himself closely with Islam to boost his popularity among religious Iraqis and the Arab world. They also say that with the Taliban's demise, Al-Qaeda is more than ever in need of a state sponsor.
Tenet's letter cites "credible reporting" that Iraq has trained Al-Qaeda members "in the areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs." It also says Baghdad's links to Palestinian terrorism are growing and that its general support of terrorism is expected to increase.
The letter says U.S. intelligence is based on "solid" and "credible" reporting, some of it coming from Al-Qaeda members now in U.S. custody.
Wolfowitz said the reporting, while not bona fide legal evidence, presents enough facts on which U.S. officials can make their own judgments about the nature of the Iraqi threat and the appropriate U.S. response. "We're trying to lay out the facts as best we can. We're laying them out precisely and accurately. And I believe those facts more than justify the concern the president has expressed, that this regime is too dangerous to be left with the world's most dangerous weapons in its hands," Wolfowitz said.
A recent document by the White House National Security Council says the United States must be prepared to wage a preventive war to preempt the possibility of any future attack from a rogue or terrorist state.
That notion is highly controversial, however. Critics say it runs contrary to international law and U.S. tradition and would set a dangerous precedent in global affairs. Moreover, Bush's critics say there is no clear-cut proof that Iraq is an imminent threat to Washington.
But Wolfowitz, considered a key Bush administration "hawk," said that after last year's attacks on New York and Washington, U.S. officials are forced to make their own judgments about menaces, such as Iraq, even if they don't have incontrovertible proof of an impending threat. "The notion that we can wait until the threat is imminent assumes that we will know when it is imminent," Wolfowitz said.
The United Nations Security Council, pressed by Washington, is expected to introduce a new resolution early next week establishing a strict regime to inspect Iraq for suspected weapons of mass destruction.
If Hussein fails to comply, the resolution will call on the Security Council to take a second look at whether to authorize the use of military force to make Iraq disarm. That provision represents a compromise for the United States, which had sought a single resolution that allowed for the use of force if Iraq did not comply.
In his speech, Wolfowitz said the United States will do everything it can to avoid a military showdown with Hussein, but he added that the threat of force, not a resolution, is the only pressure Hussein will respond to.