Secret FBI report doubts al-Qa'ida can stage 9/11-type strikes in US

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A secret FBI report has cast doubt on al-Qa'ida's ability to stage another "spectacular" attack in the US, three and a half years after the 9/11 suicide hijackings and a year after the Madrid bombings, the network's only other major strike in the West.

A secret FBI report has cast doubt on al-Qa'ida's ability to stage another "spectacular" attack in the US, three and a half years after the 9/11 suicide hijackings and a year after the Madrid bombings, the network's only other major strike in the West.

While the desire of the al-Qa'ida leadership to attack the US was "not in question", the report said, "their capability to do so is unclear, particularly in regard to 'spectacular' operations". Contrary to statements by prosecutors and the FBI's own chief, Robert Mueller, the February report, obtained last week by ABC News, says the agency knows of no al-Qa'ida "sleeper" agents in the US.

The leaked report emphasises that it is not only Britain which is having difficulty measuring the potential threat from international terrorism. Recently President George W Bush said Osama bin Laden had contacted Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qa'ida's chief associate in Iraq, to seek his help in planning attacks on the US.

Although some analysts saw this as a sign of weakness on the al-Qa'ida leader's part, Mr Bush said: "Bin Laden's message is a telling reminder that al-Qa'ida still hopes to attack us on our own soil. Stopping him is the greatest challenge of our day."

With Bin Laden having proved so elusive, the President rarely mentions the name of the man he said was wanted "dead or alive" shortly after the September 2001 attacks. Pakistan's leader, General Pervez Musharraf, recently said "the trail has gone cold", even though the al-Qa'ida leader is assumed to be hiding in the lawless tribal territories along his country's 1,500-mile border with Afghanistan.

While 18,000 American troops remain in Afghanistan to hunt down the remnants of al-Qa'ida and its Taliban allies, commanders have complained that intelligence resources and special forces have been diverted to Iraq.

No British special forces are believed to have been involved in the search for al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan since before the Iraq invasion.

But The Independent on Sunday has learnt that since last summer a squadron of the SAS has been stationed in Yemen, Bin Laden's birthplace. They are working alongside local security forces against al-Qa'ida, which draws support and numerous recruits from Yemen.

The 50 SAS soldiers, about a quarter of the regiment's strength, are believed to have been involved in firefights with terrorists in Yemen, although no British soldiers are thought to have been injured or killed in the operation. The regiment has long experience in Yemen, where it fought against guerrillas in the 1960s. It was also deployed there in a search for Bin Laden in late 2002.

A source close to the SAS said: "Just think how much demand there is on the regiment at the moment, especially for Arabic speakers in Iraq and elsewhere. That gives you an idea of how important Yemen must have become in the hunt for Bin Laden."

Rohan Gunaratna, a leading expert on al-Qa'ida, said: "It is highly unlikely that Bin Laden himself is in Yemen, but any contacts he makes with his extended family or networks there could lead to him."

Dr Gunaratna, author of Inside al-Qa'ida: Global Network of Terror, believed it was "very significant" that the movement's figurehead was seeking to link up with Zarqawi. "Al-Qa'ida has suffered many setbacks," he said, "but its ideas for attacks on the West with maximum casualties could be carried out by Zarqawi. He is becoming very active outside Iraq, building networks in Europe and the Middle East."

According to US intelligence officials quoted by The Washington Post, Zarqawi responded positively some months ago to Bin Laden's overtures. One senior counter-terrorism official described the Iraq-based terrorist's reply as: "Let's talk some more. I have ideas, you have ideas."

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