Washington A steady stream of Western recruits to al-Qaida camps on the Pakistani border bolsters the group's ability to strike the United States, the nation's top intelligence official said Tuesday.
Those camps are preparing recruits to launch terror attacks around the world, and are also a staging ground for assaults on neighboring Afghanistan, said National Intelligence Director Michael McConnell.
"Al-Qaida is improving the last key aspect of its ability to attack the U.S.: the identification, training and positioning of operatives for an attack on the homeland," McConnell testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
McConnell offered a mixed assessment of the Bush administration's progress in the war on terror: On the one hand, he said, it was "no accident" there had been no major attacks against the U.S. or most of its allies in the last year.
Working with its European counterparts, the U.S. has helped unravel extremist plots in Spain, Denmark and Germany, he said. He also described the recently reported death of Abu Layth al-Libi, one of al-Qaida's military commanders, in a missile attack in Pakistan, as "the most serious blow to the group's top leadership" since December 2005.
But while al-Qaida had suffered setbacks, including significant casualties in Iraq and a declining reputation among some segments of the Muslim community as a result of its attacks on civilians, he said the group continues to pose a serious threat.
He noted an influx of Western recruits to al-Qaida training camps since mid-2006.
And despite the declining violence in Iraq, he said, "I am increasingly concerned that as we inflict significant damage on al-Qaida in Iraq, it may shift resources to mounting more attacks outside of Iraq."
Documents captured in Iraq indicate that fewer than 100 militants have left that nation to form cells in other countries, according to a report released with McConnell's testimony.
Beyond terrorism, McConnell said that globalization had broadened the challenges facing the nation. He cited concerns that the financial clout of Russia, China and Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries might be used by those countries to advance political goals.
And he noted that Iran and North Korea continue to flout the United Nations on their nuclear programs.
At the same hearing, General Michael Hayden, head of the CIA, confirmed the identities of three men who were interrogated by the agency using "waterboarding," a controversial technique that simulates drowning.
Hayden identified them as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, senior al-Qaida operative Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, suspected of planning the 2000 attack on the USS Cole.
He said officials used the technique because they feared an attack, but that the technique has since been discontinued.