BRIGHTON, England — The FBI said Wednesday the men accused of trying to blow up U.S.-bound airliners had no obvious links to support networks in the United States, but warned that the greatest terror threat for Americans still may lurk within their own borders.
Speaking at Britain’s first national counterterrorism conference, Joseph Billy Jr., the FBI’s assistant director of its counterterrorism unit, said there are three main levels of threat from extremist groups.
The top tier, he said, is made up of traditional al-Qaida cells whose newfound sanctuaries in Pakistan and elsewhere have led to renewed capabilities. The other two tiers are al-Qaida allies and radicalized homegrown extremists inspired by al-Qaida but with no formal links to the network.
Unlike the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attack on the U.S., in which the hijackers had lived and trained in the United States, the alleged 2006 plot to bomb jetliners flying over the Atlantic appears to have links to militants in Britain and Pakistan, Billy said.
“We were very hungry for information that could link them (the alleged airline plotters) to support networks in the U.S.,” he said. “We did not see it … Does that mean they don’t exist? I’m not so sure of that.”
The terrorism conference drew hundreds of British and international law enforcement officials, intelligence agents and lawyers. Two former British extremists — one who spent more than four years in an Egyptian jail — also spoke, warning that militants will change tactics once they think they’ve been profiled.
A host of challenges confront counterterrorism agents today, including technology advances that make communication undetectable, Internet recruiting sites, gaps in international law that limit international cooperation, and the mutation of al-Qaida.
“I do not have an al-Qaida cell that I could put on the board for you,” Billy said. “We have not seen that. We have seen individuals with some links — some indirect ties, some more direct — but to have (a) cell that is plotting and moving forward has yet to be found.”
The men accused of trying to blow up at least 10 U.S.-bound airliners in 2006 are to appear in a London court in April — just one of many terrorism cases with international implications.
Billy called the airline plot “worrying” and said U.S. officials would have been caught unaware without British investigators discovering the plan.
Britain and the United States — strong allies in the Iraq war — face significant terror threats that show no sign of diminishing, Billy said.
Britain, which is home to 1.8 million Muslims, the majority of them with Pakistani origins, saw two failed terror attacks in London and Scotland last summer. Two years earlier, suicide bombers killed 52 commuters in London’s transit system; a second bomb onslaught failed two weeks later.
Billy said recent alleged plots aimed at military targets and a New York airport inside the United States — as well as intelligence showing Hezbollah operatives might be working in the U.S. — underscored the threat lying within American borders.
He said that while some al-Qaida cells were gaining strength in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas, officials also need to look to areas such as North and East Africa where Islamic militant groups and individuals are finding new sanctuaries.
Turning to potential weapons for extremists, Billy said there has been no intelligence to suggest terror groups are inching closer to developing biological, chemical or nuclear capabilities.
“Getting to that point requires an infrastructure and investment,” he said.
Billy painted a picture of counterterrorism operations of the future in which cooperation by the military, law enforcement and intelligence officials will be crucial.
“The old dichotomy of law enforcement and intelligence — and law enforcement and military — no longer applies,” Billy said. “Combatting terrorism requires a combination of all these resources and not just within our borders.”