Yesterday’s National Intelligence Estimate concluded that al Qaeda remains strong in Iraq and has been energized by the Iraq war. It stated:
Of note, we assess that al-Qa’ida will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI), its most visible and capable affiliate and the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the Homeland. [...]
In addition, we assess that its association with AQI helps al-Qa’ida to energize the broader Sunni extremist community, raise resources, and to recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for Homeland attacks.
Today in an interview with NPR, Homeland Security Advisor Frances Fragos Townsend argued that the NIE’s findings strengthen the administration’s argument to stay the course. “Al Qaeda’s resources are focused in Iraq because that’s where we are capturing and killing them every single day, so it drains their resources there,” she said. “[T]hey are very much tied down because we are keeping them tied down fighting them in Iraq.”
NPR host Steve Inskeep challenged Townsend, pointing out that al Qaeda had “no capability in Iraq before the war.” Townsend refused to answer the question, stating, “I don’t know — I wasn’t at that briefing.” She then added, “I’m going to rely on the intelligence community. … I would refer you to them.” Listen here:
It is widely known that al Qaeda was not operating in Iraq before 9/11. The Senate Intelligence Committee found that Saddam “did not trust al-Qa’ida or any other radical Islamist group and did not want to cooperate with them.”
Rather than tying down and draining al Qaeda’s resources in Iraq as Townsend said, the war has lured the the network to that country. The last NIE found that the “Iraq conflict has become the “cause celebre” for jihadists,” “shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives.” Additionally, a new government threat assessment concludes that “Al-Qaeda has rebuilt its operating capability to a level not seen since the summer of 2001,” and with strengthened capabilities to attack the United States.
INSKEEP: Now let me ask about another part of the world — Iraq. This report says that al Qaeda “will probably seek to leverage its contacts and capabilities” in Iraq. What abilities are you talking about?
TOWNSEND: Steve, I think it’s important that we at least refer to the entire sentence.
INSKEEP: Please, go ahead.
TOWNSEND: “[W]e assess that al-Qa’ida will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI), its most visible and capable affiliate and the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the Homeland.” It’s important that we understand that there’s al Qaeda central — al Qaeda core with bin Laden, Zawahiri, in the tribal areas — and we know that al Qaeda in Iraq is a direct capable affiliate of al Qaeda core. So that when the President says that al Qaeda in Iraq are the same people who tried to kill us, it’s al Qaeda writ large. The same al Qaeda that killed 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11.
INSKEEP: Well, you know that one of the intelligence officials that helped to draft this report has been briefing reporters, and has said that before the war in Iraq, al Qaeda had no capabilities in Iraq, and overwhelmingly now their resources are focused inside Iraq, not attacking the United States. Is that correct?
TOWNSEND: Al Qaeda’s resources are focused in Iraq because that’s where we are capturing and killing them every single day, so it drains their resources there. There’s no question that they’d like to try and extend their reach. And we see them trying to inspire like-minded affiliates, if you will, around the world in places like London and Glasgow. But they are very much tied down because we are keeping them tied down fighting them in Iraq.
INSKEEP: Is it correct that they had no capability in Iraq before the war?
TOWNSEND: I don’t know — I wasn’t at that briefing. I don’t know what the intelligence official said.
INSKEEP: Based on your information, is it correct they had no capability in Iraq before the war?
TOWNSEND: Steve, I’m going to rely on the intelligence community, just as this NIE is the consensus of the intelligence community. I rely on the office of the DNI for their intelligence.
INSKEEP: The Director of National Intelligence, you’re saying.
TOWNSEND: That’s right, and so I would refer you to them.