WASHINGTON — Continuing to track al-Qaida's operations in the United States, the FBI believes that a small number of sympathizers are providing financial and logistical support to terrorists overseas and could themselves participate in future attacks, the bureau's chief terrorism official said Thursday.
As the two-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks approaches, "Al-Qaida remains our No. 1 concern," Larry Mefford, who oversees counterterrorism for the FBI, told reporters at a news briefing.
Mefford, offering new insight into al-Qaida's operations in the United States, said the group's base of support in this country "is very small, but it certainly exists," mainly in the form of people providing logistical support, financing and recruiting for terrorists overseas.
"Someone could transform rapidly from providing logistical support to a terrorist organization to actually planning an attack, so it's of great concern to us," he said.
Although Mefford declined to discuss details of al-Qaida's suspected operations in the United States, the FBI is believed to be monitoring six groups in 40 states to determine their possible ties to overseas terrorists.
In a shift in strategy, officials have been seeking to intensify the monitoring of suspected groups and collect intelligence on them, rather than simply moving to arrest suspects. Immediately after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the authorities generally focused on arresting terrorist suspects at the earliest possible point to avoid another attack.
Officials said they did not believe that any of the people under surveillance in the United States represented an imminent threat. "These aren't Mohamed Atta types that we're talking about," an FBI official said, referring to the man suspected of being the ringleader among the 19 hijackers in the 9/11 attacks.
The FBI has apprehended several people in the United States who they said were low-level Qaida operatives or scouts who were in contact with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the senior aide to Osama bin Laden who is believed to have masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks. But Mefford said other operatives sent to the United States by Mohammed might still be at large.