An attempted al Qaeda attack against the United States is a high possibility in the next 3 to 6 months, the nations' top intelligence chiefs testified today.
"An attempted attack, the priority is certain, I would say," Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
CIA director Leon Panetta and FBI director Robert Mueller both told the committee they agreed with Blair's stark assessment, when asked by committee chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Blair and Panetta both said it is becoming more difficult to identify the threat posed by an evolving al Qaeda, which has become more reliant on its regional terror networks to conduct attacks.
"We have made the complex, multiple-team attacks very difficult for al Qaeda to pull off," Blair said. "As we saw with the recent successful and attempted terrorist attacks, however, identifying individual terrorists, small groups with short histories using simple attack methods is a new degree of difficulty.
"We did not identify [Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab] before he boarded Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day. We should have," he said.
Panetta shared Blair's assessment of the al Qaeda threat as something that has changed since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when four coordinated groups of terrorists hijacked separate airliners to crash them in New York and Washington.
"My greatest concern and what keeps me awake at night is that al Qaeda and its terrorist allies and affiliates could very well attack the United States in our homeland," the CIA director said. "The biggest threat I see is not so much that we face another attack similar to 9/11. I think the greater threat is that al Qaeda is adapting their methods in ways that oftentimes make it difficult to detect."
Al Qaeda has found new safe havens and established "regional nodes in places like Yemen and Somalia, the Maghreb [North Africa] and others," he said.
Panetta also warned that he is becoming increasing concerned about threats from "lone wolf" terrorists who act on their own without any central planning from an established terror network such as al Qaeda.
He cited the case of Ft. Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Hasan as one such case of a "lone wolf" terrorist.
"So it's the lone-wolf strategy that I think we have to pay attention to as a threat to this country," he said. "We are being aggressive at going after this threat. We've expanded our human intelligence. We are engaging with our liaison partners in other countries to try to track these kinds of threats."
The threat warning comes amid an ongoing debate over how the Obama administration and the Justice Department handled the case of Abdulmutallab, accused of attempting to set off a bomb on Christmas Day on Northwest flight 253, and whether the case should have been handled in the criminal justice system.
Abdulmutallab is still being interrogated by FBI agents and is providing useful information to investigators, even though he was read his Miranda rights the day after the attempted bombing of flight 253, Mueller said.
The issue over providing Abdulmutallab the Miranda rights required in the criminal justice system has become a political issue among some Republican members in Congress, who assert that the Obama administration should have moved the terror suspect into the military tribunal process so he could be interrogated for intelligence.