Al-Qaida, increasingly tamped down in Iraq, is establishing cells in other countries as Osama bin Laden's organization uses Pakistan's tribal region to train for attacks in Afghanistan, the Middle East, Africa and the United States, the U.S. intelligence chief said Tuesday.
"Al-Qaida remains the pre-eminent threat against the United States," Mike McConnell told a Senate hearing more than six years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
McConnell said that fewer than 100 al-Qaida terrorists have moved from Iraq to establish cells in other countries as the U.S. military clamps down on their activities, and the organization "may deploy resources to mount attacks outside the country."
McConnell said that while the level of violence in Iraq has dropped sharply since last year, it is going to be years before Iraq is stable. "It is not going to be over in a year. It's going to be a long time to bring it to closure," he said.
The al-Qaida network in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan has suffered setbacks, but he said the group poses a persistent and growing danger.
The Pakistani tribal areas provide al-Qaida a haven similar to what it enjoyed in Afghanistan before the war, but on a smaller and less secure scale, McConnell told the Senate Intelligence Committee. It uses the area to "maintain a cadre of skilled lieutenants capable of directing the organization's operations around the world," he said.
The next attack on the United States will most likely be launched by al-Qaida operating in those "undergoverned regions" of Pakistan, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, planned to tell Congress today.
"Continued congressional support for the legitimate government of Pakistan braces this bulwark in the long war against violent extremism," Mullen stated in remarks prepared for a separate budget hearing and obtained by the Associated Press.
FBI director Robert Mueller, who testified with McConnell, said al-Qaida continues to present a "critical threat to the homeland" and warned that "homegrown terrorists" inspired by al-Qaida's propaganda on the Internet posed a threat as well.
McConnell agreed, saying, "While the threat from homegrown extremists is greater in Europe, the U.S. is not immune."
After terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, cyber attacks on U.S. information systems are the most pressing threat, McConnell said. President Bush signed a classified directive in January outlining steps the federal government is taking to protect its networks.
U.S. intelligence agencies believe al-Qaida figures who fled Afghanistan after the ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001 have regrouped inside Pakistan's tribal region, posing a threat to U.S. forces across the border and offering a potential base for global operations. U.S. officials have said they believe bin Laden is hiding there.
Still, McConnell lauded Pakistan's cooperation, saying that more than 1,300 Pakistanis died fighting terrorists or in terrorist attacks in 2007. He said Islamabad has done more to "neutralize" terrorists than any other partner of the United States.