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CIA Director Suggests al-Qaida May be Ready to Strike Again

By Dana Priest and Susan Schmidt

The recent series of terrorist attacks abroad signals a dramatic escalation of the threat al-Qaida currently poses to United States, a danger level similar to the period just before the Sept. 11 attacks, CIA director George Tenet told Congress Thursday.

“The threat environment we find ourselves in today is as bad as it was last summer,” Tenet told the Joint House-Senate panel examining the performance of U.S. intelligence agencies before the attacks on New York and Washington. “They are reconstituted. They are coming after us. They are planning in multi-theaters. They are planning to strike the homeland again.”

The CIA director said he had met with Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge Thursday and will meet with him again Friday, adding that administration officials have “taken action in sectors we’re most concerned about.”

Other intelligence officials said analysts who have followed the string of terror attacks over the last two weeks in Yemen, Kuwait and Bali said they are particularly concerned about strikes on oil shipments from the Middle East and on targets in the United States described only as “economic.”

The threat information has often proved real, even when details such as time or location are not known. Earlier this month a French oil tanker was attacked off the coast of Yemen by terrorists believed to be part of al-Qaida. U.S. officials learned from interviews with Muhammad al-Darbi, an al-Qaida member captured in Yemen in August, that a Yemen cell was planning an attack on a Western oil tanker, sources said.

Similarly, in late September, U.S. intelligence officials learned of a communication from leaders of the South Asian terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyyah directing followers to attack Western targets, including tourist sites such as Bali, government sources said.

As was the case in the months before the Sept. 11 attacks, when Tenet tried urgently to alert administration officials to an imminent, if unspecified, threat, the director of central intelligence said Thursday that he did not know the dates, times or places likely to be struck in the future.

Despite the heightened concern about the threat, the administration has so far decided that the information is too generalized to raise the nation’s alert status from its current yellow or “elevated” risk level to orange or “high” risk, officials said Thursday night.

The FBI sent out an alert to law enforcement agencies eight days ago warning of a heightened risk of attack after the release of separate communications purportedly from al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and his second in command, Ayman Zawahiri. The warning also followed the shooting of a U.S. Marine in Kuwait and the attack on the oil tanker off Yemen.