WASHINGTON – The terrorist organization that was once the scourge of the U.S. occupation in Iraq and likely is responsible for more than 100 deaths in the country over the past few days has set its sights on launching attacks inside the United States, intelligence officials said.
Al-Qaida in Iraq released a message earlier this week that threatened to strike at the “heart” of the United States, and several associates of al-Qaida in Iraq have been arrested in the United States and Canada over the past two years, said U.S. officials, a sign that the terrorist affiliate has tried to establish a network inside North America.
The arrests highlight “the potential threat posed to the United States” from al-Qaida in Iraq, said Matthew Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, during a hearing Wednesday held by the House Homeland Security Committee examining the current threat from terrorism to the United States.
Al-Qaida in Iraq has been known primarily for launching attacks against the American forces in Iraq and the Shiite-led government there, as well as helping to plot attacks in neighboring Jordan.
But “there are networks and recruiting efforts in the U.S. and Canada,” said Seth Jones, an expert on al-Qaida at the RAND Corp. and author of “Hunting in the Shadows: the Pursuit of al-Qaida since 9/11.”
“You can say pretty categorically that al-Qaida in Iraq appears to be strengthening from where it was two years ago,” said Jones, even as the organization’s senior leaders in Pakistan have been killed.
The terrorist organization’s affiliate in Iraq was pummeled more than five years ago by a coalition of Sunni tribal leaders in western Iraq and U.S. forces, but experts who study al-Qaida say that the organization in Iraq has begun to rebuild, energized in the past year by the violent uprising in Syria next door and an influx of cash from wealthy benefactors in the Persian Gulf.
Attacking the U.S. is easier said than done, said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who sits on the House Homeland Security Committee and has been briefed on the threat to the U.S. from Iraq.
“But when you have the leader signaling that it is time to go on the offensive, there is a heightened sense of concern for law enforcement and intelligence agencies here in the U.S.,” McCaul said.