Washington : US President George W. Bush has acknowledged that Al Qaeda may be at its strongest since the 2001 terrorist attacks on the US and continues to build a base of operations in remote and ungoverned areas of Pakistan.
Bush said Thursday that Al Qaeda remained a threat but insisted that actions taken since the September 11, 2001 attacks had left the terrorist group “weaker today than they would have been”.
His comments followed US media reports of a classified government document saying Al Qaeda was as strong as during the planning stages of the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
Democrats in Congress jumped on the report and congressional testimony by intelligence officials Wednesday as evidence that the Bush administration was losing the war against terrorism by being mired in the unending Iraq conflict.
“When you hear a report that Al Qaeda’s stronger than it was before 9/11, it sends shivers down your spine,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York said at a press conference of Democratic leaders. “If Al Qaeda is gaining strength, that is the greatest indictment of what we’re doing in Iraq.”
But Bush, in a press conference Thursday, disputed media reports of the document that said Al Qaeda might even be as strong as before the 2001 attacks.
“There is a perception in the coverage that Al Qaeda may be as strong today as they were prior to September the 11th. That’s just simply not the case. I think the report will say since 2001, not prior to September the 11th, 2001,” Bush said.
The five-page document was compiled by the National Counterterrorism Centre and reflected findings that will be part of the next National Intelligence Estimate to be released later this summer, CNN and the Washington Post reported.
US intelligence officials Wednesday acknowledged that Al Qaeda was regaining strength and planning capability.
“We actually see the Al Qaeda central being resurgent in their role in planning operations,” John Kringen, head of the CIA’s intelligence directorate, told the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee.
“They seem to be fairly well settled into the safe haven in the ungoverned spaces of Pakistan. We see more training. We see more money. We see more communications.”
Bush said he was working with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to “keep the pressure” on Al Qaeda’s operations in the country.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff also caused a stir Wednesday with remarks in a newspaper interview that he had a “gut feeling” that Al Qaeda was poised to carry out an attack on US soil this summer.
Chertoff back-pedalled later in the day, saying he had “no single piece of intelligence” that was worrisome. He cited the recent attempted attacks in London and Glasgow as reasons to worry about more attacks.
However, the White House said Wednesday there was “no credible intelligence” suggesting a possible terrorist attack against the United States this summer.
To add to unease about a terrorist attack, a US government agency released a report that showed how easy it is to obtain official licences to buy and handle radioactive materials needed to build a so-called dirty bomb, media reports said Thursday.
Investigators of the Government Accountability Office, posing as businessmen, said they were able to obtain the licence with minimum scrutiny or background checks on their company, which was nothing more than a post office box, a telephone and a fax machine, the Washington Post reported.