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Officials see signs revived alqaeda { May 17 2003 }

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May 17, 2003
U.S. Officials See Signs of a Revived Al Qaeda

WASHINGTON, May 16 — Leaders and operatives of Al Qaeda have reorganized bases of operations in at least a half-dozen locations, including Kenya, Sudan, Pakistan and Chechnya, senior counterterrorism officials said this week.

The leaders have begun to recruit new members, train the new followers and plan new attacks on Western targets in earnest, according to senior counterterrorism officials in Washington, Europe and the Middle East.

As evidence of this, senior government officials pointed to the secret arrests in the United States in the last two months of two Arab men suspected of having been sent by senior leaders of Al Qaeda to scout targets for new terror attacks.

The two recently apprehended men, whom the officials would not identify, were said to be conducting "presurveillance" activities. They were part of a larger group of about six Qaeda followers arrested in recent months whose presence in the United States has led the authorities to conclude that the terrorist group remains determined to carry out attacks on American soil, officials said.

The previously undisclosed arrests, along with the deadly bombings in Morocco today and Saudi Arabia this week that bear the earmarks of Al Qaeda, provided what officials in the United States and overseas said were strong indications that Osama bin Laden's network remained a potent threat, despite setbacks like the capture in March of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the network's senior operational commander. "Definitely, their capability has been eroded," said one senior government official, discussing Al Qaeda's ability to carry out attacks. "But they are still a threat, they are still sophisticated, they are still fighting and they are still trying to strike in the United States."

Although Al Qaeda's role in the Riyadh bombings on Monday night has not yet been confirmed, senior counterterrorism officials interviewed this week in the United States and Europe said they suspected the Saudi attacks marked a resurgence from a period of dormancy that began with the American-led invasion of Iraq two months ago.

The officials cited troubling signs that Al Qaeda had opened new training outposts in East Africa and had energized its recruitment efforts.

They also said there was new intelligence indicating that Al Qaeda was in the final planning stages of new attacks, possibly involving aircraft. Britain and the United States issued stark warnings this week about possible terrorist strikes in Saudi Arabia and East Africa.

One government official said such evidence of renewed activity indicated a furious attempt to "re-establish themselves and send loud messages" to the West. The official said he believed that the bombings in Riyadh were an important first step toward accomplishing that goal.

A senior counterterrorism official estimated that Al Qaeda had 3,000 members, far fewer than in the late 1990's, when as many as 20,000 people trained at Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. Other officials said numbers were necessarily imprecise because Al Qaeda had no clear membership standards. In the United States, scores of people have come to the attention of law enforcement officials who suspect them of terrorist connections, to Al Qaeda and other groups, officials said.

Some of the half-dozen or so recently arrested in the United States were said to have been studying possible locations for attacks on gasoline tanker trucks or suspension bridges. Others were in the United States awaiting future orders as "possible sleepers" or had transferred funds to other suspects. Officials said some of the men had been operating under the direction of Mr. Mohammed — who, after his arrest in Pakistan, is said to have confirmed their presence in the United States inspecting possible sites for terrorist attacks.

In the past, Mr. Mohammed was known to have sent other Qaeda operatives to the United States to undertake terrorist operations. Officials suspect that one of them was José Padilla, who in May 2002 was arrested in Chicago as he arrived from Zurich. He was accused of involvement in a plot to build a "dirty" bomb using conventional explosives and radiological materials.

The targets of the scouts in the recent cases was not clear, but Mr. Mohammed has told interrogators that landmarks in New York and Washington, previously selected by Mr. bin Laden, remain on Al Qaeda's target list, along with buildings like the Sears Tower in Chicago.

"I can confirm that there have been potential Al Qaeda operatives who have been arrested for suspected surveillance activities in the past few months," one senior government official said. "Intelligence officials are in the process of determining whether there are credible threats based on these activities."

Under the federal rules for the conduct of criminal cases, it is highly unusual for the authorities to arrest any suspects in the United States without disclosing their identities or the formal charges against them. In this instance, federal prosecutors have revealed neither the names nor nationalities of the defendants, nor the places or dates of their arrests.

Several government officials suggested that the United States might have reached cooperation agreements with one or more of the suspects; in such cases, prosecutors would be permitted to keep the cases under seal.

In recent months, counterterrorism officials have prepared new assessments of how terrorists might strike. Analysts have concluded from detainee interviews and other intelligence that Al Qaeda remains highly interested in using a sector of the transportation or aviation industry for an attack.

They consider it far more likely that there "would be an attack on one aircraft, rather than a coordinated attack on several jets," one official said.

Intelligence analysts now believe that Richard C. Reid, who in December 2001 tried to ignite explosives in his shoes during a flight from Paris to Miami, "was a throwaway," as one official put it, used to experiment with concealed explosives.

Several senior counterterrorism officials said Al Qaeda was trying to develop harder-to-detect explosive materials, to be placed in shoes or luggage, that would be used to blow up a passenger plane. It is unlikely, officials said, that a terrorist team would follow the example of the Sept. 11 hijackers, spending months in the United States before a new attack. More probably, they would remain overseas until it was time to strike.

Outside the United States, the group has maintained active followers in a number of countries from North Africa to the Asian Pacific. Some are said to be largely autonomous local groups that adhere to Al Qaeda's extreme philosophy. Others are tied to the group's hierarchy, maintained through a weakened but still functioning communication and financial support system.

In particular, Al Qaeda has returned to East Africa, where it flourished in the mid-1990's. Two senior counterterrorism officials said the group had begun to train new recruits in Sudan, where American officials have complained they have had limited cooperation from the government in fighting terrorism.

A senior American official said that at least one Qaeda training camp had been established in Sudan — perhaps others in recent months.

Officials also said Al Qaeda had gained a strong foothold in Kenya, where men believed to be linked to the group fired two shoulder-held missiles at an Israeli jet over Mombasa, Kenya, in November.

On Thursday night, Britain took the extraordinary measure of barring British Airways from flying in or out of Kenya because of a specific threat of terrorism, presumably a missile attack. Today, Britain extended the measure to include a total of six East African nations including Sudan.

Some officials say they view Al Qaeda as moving into a newly aggressive phase, tightening into smaller, more disciplined units under the control of a newer generation of leaders who have been forced to operate largely on the run, trying to stay ahead of the authorities in scores of countries.

At one point, earlier in the year, it seemed as if the group had been seriously and possibly irreparably damaged. Its leaders were routinely arrested or in hiding. Recruitment had fallen off. It appeared to lack the resources or numerical strength to mount large attacks.

But since the United States invaded Iraq in March, officials said, the network has experienced a spike in recruitment. "There is an increase in radical fundamentalism all over the world," said a senior counterterrorism official based in Europe. "But whether that means more young men will leap to Al Qaeda, I don't know if that is clear."

Officials also cited the emergence of new young leaders in the operational and planning roles that captured or killed members had held.

As an example, several officials pointed to Saif al-Adel, who once sat on Al Qaeda's consultative council and has now apparently emerged as a more important operational planner, assuming the leadership role held by Mr. Mohammed. Mr. Adel, a Saudi, joined Al Qaeda through its affiliation in the early 1990's with Egyptian Islamic Jihad. He has been at large since 1993, when according to government officials he trained tribal fighters to attack the United States peacekeeping force in Somalia, killing 18 American soldiers.

Another Qaeda leader who has taken on even more importance in the minds of some investigators is Fazul Abdullah Muhammad, a Comoro Islander, who was charged with conspiring to bomb the United States Embassy in Kenya in August 1998. Published reports indicate that Mr. Muhammad was recently seen in Somalia, and the authorities there are concerned that he is overseeing a major attack planned for East Africa.

Al Qaeda has been weakened since 2001 but is still lethal, said Wayne Downing, a retired Army general who was national security adviser for counterterrorism until July.

"It is like a wounded animal," Mr. Downing said in an interview. "It might not be able to strike quickly, but if you come within its range, it will strike. We have to be vigilant."

Mr. Downing made those remarks several days before the four well-coordinated car bombing attacks on Monday night at three Western housing complexes in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

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