WASHINGTON — The United States faces an increased threat of attack from al Qaeda, which will likely try to use battle-hardened associates in Iraq to strike inside the United States, an intelligence report warned on Tuesday.
The unclassified report, part of a classified intelligence estimate delivered to President George W. Bush and Congress, said al Qaeda’s affiliation with al Qaeda in Iraq is helping Osama bin Laden’s militant network recruit operatives.
"We assess that al Qaeda will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of al Qaeda in Iraq, its most visible and capable affiliate," said the two-page document of key intelligence judgments on threats facing the U.S. homeland over the next three years.
Released as the White House confronts mounting pressure in Congress to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq, the document marked the first time that the 16-agency U.S. intelligence community has warned publicly that the Iraq war poses a near-term threat to the United States.
The White House said there was no credible information pointing to an imminent attack and the nation’s alert status was unchanged at an elevated level.
Intelligence officials also said there was no evidence of al Qaeda cells operating inside the United States.
"But the warning is clear, and we are taking it seriously," said White House homeland security adviser Frances Townsend.
The threat from Al Qaeda has increased in recent years as the network behind the September 11 attacks has gained strength and become entrenched at sites in remote northwestern Pakistan, intelligence officials said.
The safe haven has enabled bin Laden and his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri, to regain some command abilities lost when U.S.-led forces drove them from Afghanistan in late 2001.
The report said al Qaeda remained the "the most serious terrorist threat" to the United States and its leadership continued to plan high-impact plots. It predicted that al Qaeda would try harder to put operatives inside the United States.
"As a result, we judge that the United States currently is in a heightened threat environment," it said.
The Iraq war has long been seen by U.S. officials as an training ground for Islamist militants. But intelligence officials had previously said the threat was unlikely to spread to other countries until after the fighting stops and foreign militants return home.
Bush and other top administration officials have also argued that the war in Iraq is protecting Americans by preventing militants from attacking the United States.
Tuesday’s report appeared to put the White House on the defensive, by echoing an earlier Senate report that Bush was warned in early 2003 that al Qaeda could exploit a U.S. invasion of Iraq.
"So we should leave then, and we should not disturb our enemies anywhere in the world because they may use it for propaganda value? I don’t think so," Townsend said when pressed by reporters at a news conference.
"Every time you poke the hornet’s nest, they are bound to come back and push back on you," she said.