The terrorist organization is deploying operatives to the United States to carry out new attacks from inside the country, including "clean" recruits with a negligible trail of terrorist contacts, CIA Director Leon Panetta said. The chilling warning comes as Christmas Day airline attack suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutullab is cooperating with federal investigators, a federal law enforcement official said Tuesday.
Al-Qaida is also inspiring homegrown extremists to trigger violence on their own, Panetta said.
The annual assessment of the nation's terror threats provided no startling new terror trends, but amplified growing concerns since the Christmas Day airline attack in Detroit that militants are growing harder to detect and moving more quickly in their plots.
"The biggest threat is not so much that we face an attack like 9/11. It is that al-Qaida is adapting its methods in ways that oftentimes make it difficult to detect," Panetta told the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Several senators tangled over whether suspected terrorists should be tried in civilian or military court. At the same time, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation that would force the Obama administration to backtrack on its plans to try Sept. 11 defendants in federal court in New York and use military tribunals instead.
As al-Qaida presses new terror plots, it is increasingly relying on new recruits with minimal training and simple devices to carry out attacks, Panetta said as part of the terror assessment to Congress.
Panetta also warned of the danger of extremists acting alone: "It's the lone-wolf strategy that I think we have to pay attention to as the main threat to this country," he said.
The hearing comes just over a month since a failed attempt to bring down an airliner in Detroit, allegedly by Abdulmutullab, a Nigerian. And the assessment comes only a few months after U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Hassan was accused of single-handedly attacking his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, killing 13.
National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair said with changes made since the Dec. 25 attack, U.S. intelligence would he able to identify and stop someone like the Detroit bomber before he got on the plane. But he warned a more careful and skilled would-be terrorist might not be detected.
FBI Director Robert Mueller defended the FBI's handling of the Detroit attempted bombing attack, disputing assertions that agents short-circuited more intelligence insights from the Nigerian suspect by quickly providing him with his Miranda rights to remain silent.
Mueller was asked by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., whether the interrogation of Abdulmutullab continues despite the fact that the suspect had already been read his legal right to remain silent. Mueller replied: "Yes."
Mueller said that in "case after case," terrorists have provided actionable intelligence even after they were given their rights and charged with crimes. Mueller said they know such cooperation can result in shorter sentences or other consideration from the government.
Mueller also said that a new FBI-CIA interrogation team created in August to replace controversial CIA interrogations had been used several times already.
That seemed to contradict what Blair told Congress in January.
He said at a hearing on Abdulmutallab that he thought the interrogation team should have been used to question the suspect but later clarified his remarks to say that the teams were not used because they were not yet fully operational.
Intelligence officials confirmed Tuesday the High-Value Interrogation Group is not yet fully formed but said joint interrogation teams are available for use.
Panetta confirmed that the agency participates on the team, though not in a lead role.
"They're backup, but they are doing some of the interviewing," he said.
Hundreds of terror suspects have already been convicted in civilian federal courts, including convicted shoe bomber Richard Reid.
But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., offered a bill Tuesday that would prohibit the government from using Justice Department funds to prosecute suspects charged in the Sept. 11 attack in civilian courts.
The move comes on the heels of the Obama administration's decision to rethink whether it would try self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad in a New York City courtroom.
The proposed law would cover people who legally could be prosecuted by a military commission, applying to terror suspects who are not U.S. citizens. By Tuesday evening, the bill had support from 18 senators, mostly Republicans.
During the terror assessment hearing, Blair also warned of the growing cyberthreat, saying computer-related attacks have become dynamic and malicious.
Obama has promised to make cybersecurity a priority in his administration, but the president's new budget asks for a decrease in funds for the Homeland Security Department's cybersecurity division.
The government's first quadrennial homeland security review states that high consequence and large-scale cyberattacks could massively disable or hurt international financial, commercial and physical infrastructure.
The report, obtained by The Associated Press, said these types of cyberattacks could cripple the movement of people and goods around the world and bring vital social and economic programs to a halt.