Barack Obama is warned to beware of a ‘huge threat’ from al-Qaeda
Security officials fear a ‘spectacular’ during the transition period
Am American flag flies near the base of the destroyed World Trade Center in New York
Tom Baldwin in Washington and Michael Evans, Defence Editor
Barack Obama is being given ominous advice from leaders on both sides of the Atlantic to brace himself for an early assault from terrorists.
General Michael Hayden, director of the CIA, this week acknowledged that there were dangers during a presidential transition when new officials were coming in and getting accustomed to the challenges. But he added that no “real or artificial spike” in intercepted transmissions from terror suspects had been detected.
President Bush has repeatedly described the acute vulnerability of the US during a transition. The Bush Administration has been defined largely by the 9/11 attacks, which came within a year of his taking office.
His aides have pointed to al-Qaeda’s first assault on the World Trade Centre, which occurred little more than a month after Bill Clinton became President in 1993. There was an alleged attempt to bomb Glasgow airport in Gordon Brown’s first days in Downing Street and a London nightclub attack was narrowly thwarted.
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Lord West of Spithead, the Home Office Security Minister, spoke recently of a “huge threat”, saying: “There is another great plot building up again and we are monitoring this.”
Intelligence chiefs on both sides of the Atlantic have indicated that such warnings refer more to a general sense of foreboding than fear of an imminent or specific plan.
Referring to the attacks in 1993 and 2001, General Hayden told a Washington think-tank on Thursday night: “For some people two data points create a trend line. For others, there may be more hesitation to call it that.” He said that the chief danger comes from remote areas in Pakistan that border Afghanistan.
“Today virtually every major terrorist threat that my agency is aware of has threads back to the tribal areas. Whether it’s command and control, training, direction, money, capabilities, there is a connection to the Fata [Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas].”
General Hayden said that al-Qaeda remained a “determined, adaptive enemy” operating “from its safe haven in Pakistan”. He added: “If there is a major attack on this country it will bear the fingerprints of al-Qaeda.”
He said that the border region remained the base of al-Qaeda’s leadership, which had developed a more durable structure and a deep reserve of skilled operatives. “AlQaeda, operating from its safe haven in Pakistan’s tribal areas, remains the most clear and present danger to the safety of the United States,” General Hayden said.
The hunt for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden “is very much at the top of CIA’s priority list,” he added. “Because of his iconic stature, his death or capture clearly would have a significant impact on the confidence of his followers.”
The CIA chief also suggested that the terror group was seeking to recruit Western-looking operatives who would not cause attention if they were standing in airport screening queues.
Hours after he spoke, a suspected US missile attack killed 12 people in Pakistan, including five foreigners. Such strikes are hugely controversial, with Islamabad claiming that they fuel anti-American extremist groups. But Mr Obama has been clear that he wants to pursue al-Qaeda aggressively across the Afghan border.
In Britain, security officials say that there is genuine concern that alQaeda will attempt a “spectacular” in the transition period, but suggest that it may be aimed more at Mr Bush than Mr Obama.
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