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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

U.S. counterterrorism agencies finding potential homegrown extremists in U.S.

WASHINGTON (AP) – U.S. counterterrorism officials say they are uncovering homegrown Islamic radicals inside the United States who lack formal ties to al-Qaeda and operate independently.

Those independent qualities – combined with the radicals' ability to organize and plot on the Internet – make them particularly difficult to disrupt, retired Vice Adm. John Scott Redd, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday.

In a hearing on the changing face of terror, Redd said the threat from homegrown extremism is a recent trend that was seen in successful transit attacks in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005.

One alleged homegrown North American plot has been disrupted: This month, Canadian authorities arrested 17 men and juveniles who are accused of planning attacks in southern Ontario. They are said to have obtained three times the amount of explosives used in the Oklahoma City bombing.

Redd pointed to what he said were three potential homegrown organizations that have been disrupted in the U.S. in just over a year:

Two Atlanta-area men, charged earlier this year in a terrorism case, have been publicly linked to some of the Canadian suspects. Prosecutors have said the two traveled to Washington to shoot “casing videos” of the Capitol and other potential targets. The lawyer for one suspect has insisted it wasn't part of any terrorism plot.

In Torrance, Calif., the head of a radical Islamic prison gang and three others were indicted last year on federal charges of planning terrorist attacks against U.S. military facilities, the Israeli Consulate and other Los Angeles-area targets.

In the farming town of Lodi, Calif., a young Pakistani man faces at least 30 years in prison for supporting terrorism by attending an al-Qaeda training camp in Pakistan in 2003 and lying to the FBI. His father pleaded guilty to trying to smuggle $28,000 in cash to Pakistan.

Showing how the government's mission has changed, Redd said that before 9/11 the FBI wrote 25 intelligence-information reports a year, but now the bureau produces more than 1,000 annually.

Still, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, the committee's top Democrat, called it “on the verge of criminal” that the government is not fully funding the recommendations of the Sept. 11 Commission, estimated at $42 billion over five years.

The hearing came less than a week after the U.S. military and intelligence agencies killed one of the world's top terror leaders in an airstrike, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Redd said the merger between al-Zarqawi's group and al-Qaeda's central organization gives terror leaders a more diverse pool of “battle-hardened” operatives from which to draw. Intelligence officials, he said, are also seeing signs that al-Zarqawi's group was hatching plots outside Iraq. But he did not elaborate.

Redd and Henry Crumpton, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, agreed that al-Qaeda remains the pre-eminent concern of counterterror agencies. But they are also worried about other threats, including the Shiite extremist group, Hezbollah, which is closely allied with Iran.

Senators were particularly concerned about a fundamentalist Islamic militia that took over the Somali capital of Mogadishu last week.

Crumpton conceded that his department didn't anticipate the events. He said the U.S. government has three objectives in Somalia: to deny al-Qaeda safe haven to organize; to support the weak, transitional government that is backed by the U.N., and to provide humanitarian aid.

Al-Qaeda has existed in Somalia since the early 1990s. At least one key operative behind the 1998 East Africa bombings may be in Mogadishu, as well as a cell behind a 2002 attack in Mombasa, Kenya.

Crumpton said the U.S. has an “imperfect understanding” of the fundamentalist group, the Islamic Courts Union, that seized control of the capital.

It sent a letter proclaiming it was not an enemy of the United States. “Our response has been very clear: We expect them to work with the transitional government, and we also expect them to work with us to hand over al-Qaeda and foreign fighters,” Crumpton said.
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