WASHINGTON - Al-Qaeda still poses the gravest terrorism threat to the United States, and an emboldened Hezbollah is a rising danger, the departing U.S. intelligence chief said yesterday.
In his annual review of global threats, National Intelligence Director John Negroponte highlighted an increasingly worrisome posture of Hezbollah - backed by Iran and Syria - since its 34-day war with Israel in July and August.
"As a result of last summer's hostilities, Hezbollah's self-confidence and hostility toward the U.S. as a supporter of Israel could cause the group to increase its contingency planning against U.S. interests," Negroponte told the Senate intelligence committee in written testimony.
The assessment by Negroponte, who last week was nominated to become top deputy to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, depicted a more multifaceted terrorist threat than has been given in years past. Since the attacks of Sept. 11, U.S. spy agencies have stressed the threat from al-Qaeda and associated Sunni extremist groups, rather than Hezbollah and other Shiite Muslim groups.
Hezbollah has a global fund-raising network but has not directly attacked U.S. interests in years. It was responsible for the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy and the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, that killed more than 240 American servicemen. The group's Saudi wing, in coordination with the larger Lebanese Hezbollah, is blamed for the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996.
Negroponte also stressed the importance of Iraq. He said that country was at a "precarious juncture" and that the Iraqi government needed to establish secular institutions that could bridge sectarian differences. The flow of weapons and fighters from Iran and Syria in support of Shiites must be stemmed, he said, and al-Qaeda in Iraq must be stopped.
Al-Qaeda remains the top worry, he said. It maintains active connections "that radiate outward from their leaders' secure hideout in Pakistan to affiliates throughout the Middle East, northern Africa and Europe," Negroponte said.
Conventional explosives remain the "most probable" means of attack from the group, but there also are reports that it is trying to obtain chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons, he said.
In his written testimony, FBI Director Robert Mueller said that al-Qaeda's choice of targets and methods would most likely focus on economic targets, such as aviation, the energy sector and mass transit. The group also remains interested in large public gatherings and symbolic targets, such as monuments and public gatherings.