Washington Al-Qaida is stepping up its efforts to sneak terror operatives into the United States and has acquired most of the capabilities it needs to strike here, according to a new U.S. intelligence assessment, The Associated Press has learned.
The draft National Intelligence Estimate is expected to paint an ever-more-worrisome portrait of al-Qaida's ability to use its base along the Pakistan-Afghan border to launch and inspire attacks against the United States over the next several years.
Yet, the government's top analysts concluded that U.S. soil has become a harder target for the extremist network, thanks to worldwide counterterror efforts since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Among the key findings of the classified estimate, which is still in draft form and must be approved by all 16 U.S. spy agencies:
¢ The U.S. will face "a persistent and evolving terrorist threat" within its borders over the next three years. The main danger comes from Islamic terrorist groups, especially al-Qaida, and is "driven by the undiminished intent to attack the homeland and a continued effort by terrorist groups to adapt and improve their capabilities."
¢ Al-Qaida is probably still pursuing chemical, biological or nuclear weapons and would use them if its operatives developed sufficient capability.
¢ The terror group has been able to restore three of the four key tools it would need to launch an attack on U.S. soil: a safe haven in Pakistan's tribal areas, operational lieutenants and senior leaders. It could not immediately be learned what the missing fourth element is.
¢ The group will bolster its efforts to position operatives inside U.S. borders. In public statements, U.S. officials have expressed concern about the ease with which people can enter the United States through Europe because of a program that allows most Europeans to enter without visas.
The document also discusses increasing concern about individuals already inside the United States who are adopting an extremist brand of Islam.
On a positive note, analysts concluded that increased international efforts over the past five years "have constrained the ability of al-Qaida to attack the U.S. homeland again and have led terrorist groups to perceive the homeland as a harder target to strike than on 9/11."
Those measures helped disrupt known plots against the United States, the analysts found.
National Intelligence Estimates are the most authoritative written judgments that reflect the consensus long-term thinking of senior intelligence analysts.
Government officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the report has not been finalized, described it as an expansive look at potential threats within the United States and said it required the cooperation of a number of national security agencies, including the CIA, FBI, Homeland Security Department and National Counterterrorism Center.
National security officials met at the White House on Thursday about the intelligence estimate and related counterterrorism issues. The tentative plan is to release a declassified version of the report and brief Congress on Tuesday, one government official said.