Report: Al-Qaida poses heightened threat

WASHINGTON -- Al-Qaida is using its growing strength in Pakistan and Iraq to plot attacks on U.S. soil, heightening the terror threat facing the United States over the next few years, intelligence agencies concluded in a report unveiled Tuesday.

At the same time, the intelligence analysts worry that international cooperation against terrorism will be hard to sustain as memories of Sept. 11, 2001, fade and nations' views diverge on what the real threat is.

In the National Intelligence Estimate prepared for President Bush and other top policy-makers, analysts laid out a range of dangers -- from al-Qaida to Lebanese Hezbollah to non-Muslim radical groups -- that pose a "persistent and evolving threat" to the country over the next three years.

The findings focused most heavily on Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, which was judged to remain the most serious threat to the United States. The group's affiliate in Iraq, which has not yet posed a direct threat to U.S. soil, could do just that, the report concluded. Al-Qaida in Iraq threatened to attack the United States in a Web statement last September.

National Intelligence Council chairman Thomas Fingar warned that the group's operatives in Iraq are getting portable, firsthand experience in covert communications, smuggling, improvised explosive devices, understanding U.S. military tactics and more.

The Iraqi affiliate also helps al-Qaida more broadly as it tries to energize Sunni Muslim extremists around the globe, raise resources and recruit and indoctrinate operatives -- "including for homeland attacks," according to a declassified summary of the report's main findings.

In addition, analysts stressed the importance of al-Qaida's increasingly comfortable hideout in Pakistan that has resulted from a hands-off accord between Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and tribal leaders along the Afghan border. That 10-month-old deal, which has unraveled in recent days, gave al-Qaida new opportunities to set up compounds for terror training, improve its international communications with associates and bolster its operations.

Tuesday's publicly disclosed judgments are part of a more expansive, still-classified document, approved by the heads of all 16 intelligence agencies June 21.

The White House sought to downplay the report's worries about the future of international counterterrorism cooperation. Bush's homeland security adviser, Frances Fragos Townsend, said the administration isn't concerned about being abandoned by allies. Cooperation is "actually as strong as it's ever been," she said.

The Bush administration also brushed off critics who say the administration released the intelligence estimate now to help its case as the Senate debates whether to withdraw troops from Iraq. White House press secretary Tony Snow said critics are "engaged in a little selective hearing ... to shape the story in their own political ways."

Meanwhile, Democrats said the report was proof that U.S. anti-terrorism efforts are being drained by the Iraq war.