The New York Times Sunday reported the post-war presence of U.S. troops in Iraq could provoke violence against Americans and American interests there, in the rest of the Middle East, around the world — and at home.
"I can't believe that they are going to do nothing after Iraq," one senior counterterrorism official told the paper. "I've been frankly astonished at how quiet it's been. I've got to believe that somehow, some way they are going to try to hit us. It's just a matter of time."
Occupying Iraq could further fuel already-strong anti-American sentiments in the Arab world, encouraging terrorist acts from extremist groups, the officials warned.
"If there is one (Osama) bin Laden now, there will be 100 bin Ladens afterward," Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak said last week.
But the indications — "chatter" — that have led the Department of Homeland Security to increase the nation's threat warning level have actually decreased since the start of the war.
A senior intelligence official said he'd seen very little credible evidence that any terrorist plots were imminent in the U.S. Another official said that while the "chatter" had not declined, it had not increased, either.
One factor limiting the threats for now may be last month's capture of al Qaeda's operations chief, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. That appears to have severely damaged al Qaeda's ability to conduct major operations against the United States.
Some of the officials said the terror networks could change tactics. They cite as one example the use of suicide bombers against coalition soldiers in Iraq.
Saddam has called for other Arabs to fight for Iraq, but "we've been watching, but we haven't seen it," one military intelligence official said.
Some senior administration officials assumed that a terrorist attack against American interests was a given, and part of the cost of toppling Hussein, said The Times. The likelihood of a terrorist response to the war was a major factor cited by many critics of the administration, including a number of Congressional Democrats, for opposing the war.
Another factor in the lack of attacks could be that Hezbollah, a leading Middle Eastern terrorist group, is controlled by Iran's intelligence apparatus and influenced by Syria and Iran. Some American experts say Iran ordered Hezbollah sometime in the 1990s not to attack American targets. Iran is a longtime adversary of Saddam's Iraq.
Hamas, like Hezbollah, focuses its attacks on Israel. Because it depends on donations from Arabs living in the United States, it has always avoided attacks against American targets. Officials say they have not seen any significant change in that policy.