Mr. Panetta offered that chilling prediction today, during Congressional testimony that also included FBI Director Robert Mueller and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair. The CIA chief said the terror group is utilizing new recruits who are more difficult to detect and trace, as CBS News reports:
The terrorist organization is deploying operatives to the United States to carry out new attacks from inside the country, including "clean" recruits with a negligible trail of terror contacts, CIA Director Leon Panetta said. Al Qaeda is also inspiring homegrown extremists to trigger violence on their own, Panetta added.
"The biggest threat is not so much that we face an attack like 9/11. It is that al Qaeda is adapting its methods in ways that oftentimes make it difficult to detect," Panetta told the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Panetta said the fear is al Qaeda is relying more and more on recruits with little training using simple devices, as in the attempted Christmas day attack...he also warned of the danger of extremists acting alone: "It's the lone-wolf strategy that I think we have to pay attention to as the main threat to this country," he said.
Interestingly, both CBS and the AP claimed that today's Congressional testimony (which provided the annual threat assessment by intelligence and security officials) contained "no startling new terrorism trends. Funny, but we can't recall another example of a CIA Director warning of an Al Qaida attack--presumably against the American homeland--in the next six months. If that's not a "startling trend," we're not sure what would meet that criteria.
However, the CIA prediction did amplify misgivings about the handling of the failed Christmas Day plot to blow up a U.S. jetliner. The accused bomber, 23-year-old Farouk Abdulmutallab, was interrogated for less than an hour before being "Mirandized" and ending his cooperation with U.S. authorities.
While some intelligence sources now claim that Abdulmutallab has resumed talking in recent days, there are genuine worries about information he might be withholding--information that could have been extracted during an extended interrogation.
As we noted last week, British intelligence officials believe the Nigerian was part of a larger group of terrorists that trained in Al Qaida camps in Yemen last year. The whereabouts of those operatives remains unknown. Extended questioning of Abdulmutallab by trained interrogators might have yielded actionable intelligence on those trainees and their operational assignments.
Also unclear is the status of 36 American ex-convicts who traveled to Yemen over the past year, ostensibly to study Arabic. Thomas Joscelyn of The Weekly Standard has unearthed a little-publicized report from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (released last month) that raises concerns about the former convicts and a second group of Americans, who moved to Yemen several years ago and converted to a form of radical Islam.
While there is no conclusive evidence that members of either group have joined Al Qaida, intelligence and security officials say that some of the Americans disappeared after arriving in Yemen, and may have migrated to terror training camps in the countryside. The presence of new American recruits in Al Qaida's Arabian Peninsula affiliate represents another line of questioning for Abdulmutallab, but there it's doubtful that FBI agents--who conducted the Detroit interview--raised that critical subject.
We should also mention that the Foreign Relations Committee (chaired by none other than John Kerry) describes Al Qaida's Yemeni affiliate as a "ticking time bomb." All the more reason that Abdulmutallab--one of the most recent products of that pipeline--should have been interrogated at length and treated as a terrorist, not a criminal defendant.
Because of that mistake, we are facing Al Qaida's "next wave" with intelligence gaps that we created.