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07/11/2002 - Updated 09:39 PM ET
Al-Qaeda is active in U.S., Ashcroft warns
By Kevin Johnson and John Diamond, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — Attorney General John Ashcroft said Thursday that al-Qaeda maintains a "hidden but active presence" in the USA and that its members are poised to strike again.
"There remain sleeper terrorists and their supporters in the United States who have not yet been identified in a way that will allow us to take pre-emptive action against them," Ashcroft told a House committee Thursday.
Ashcroft and intelligence officials would not estimate how many terrorists have established a foothold. Federal investigators have been monitoring several groups in various cities that they suspect have ties to terrorist organizations.
Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said there is no question that al-Qaeda members are here.
"We do know that for a period of five or six years, when the training camps were in operation in Afghanistan, there was an average of 5,000 to 6,000 people trained per year," Graham said. "Those people are somewhere. And some of them are in the United States."
Graham said other groups, including Hezbollah, also have operatives in the USA.
Al-Qaeda's mode of operation has been to use small numbers of operatives to protect the security of terrorist plans. As the 19 hijackers proved on Sept. 11, a small number can do extraordinary damage. Authorities think that al-Qaeda shies from larger groups because they can become unwieldy, and it fears that more people increase the chances that an operation may be compromised.
In his testimony, Ashcroft said the government has become more adept at blocking entry of suspected terrorists. But that success has federal authorities concerned about how terror groups are using other methods to increase their presence.
"As we limit the access of foreign terrorists to our country," Ashcroft said, "we recognize that the terrorists' response will be to recruit United States citizens and permanent residents to carry out their attacks."
The attorney general was referring to the arrest last month of Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen suspected of exploring prospects for obtaining materials for a radioactive "dirty bomb" on behalf of al-Qaeda. Padilla has been detained by the Defense Department as an enemy combatant.
Contributing: Kathy Kiely.