Qaeda a threat, but not imminently: officials

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Al Qaeda deputy Ayman al Zawahri’s message on Wednesday criticizing U.S. president-elect Barack Obama and urging attacks on America shows the network remains a threat, but there are no signs of imminent attacks, U.S. officials said on Wednesday.

Al Qaeda's second-in-command Ayman al Zawahri's message criticizing president-elect Barack Obama and urging attacks on "criminal" America is seen in this video grab released November 19, 2008. REUTERS/SITE Intelligence Group via Reuters TV

Mindful of past al Qaeda attacks around the time of leadership transitions, U.S. security agencies have focused on ensuring there are no gaps in the handover of power. But they have consistently said there are no signs al Qaeda is preparing an early attack on the United Sates.

“We maintain that there’s no credible information to suggest there’s an imminent threat against the homeland at this time,” Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Laura Keehner said.

Zawahri, in al Qaeda’s first high-level comment on Obama’s November 4 election, called Obama “the direct opposite of honorable black Americans.” He said Obama’s plan to send more troops to Afghanistan was doomed to failure and urged supporters to keep striking a “criminal” America.

A U.S. counterterrorism official said Zawahri’s message seems intended to counter a message of change sent by U.S. voters in electing Obama as the first black U.S. president, who is widely popular internationally.

“The message, unsurprising in its bitter tone and content, is remarkable chiefly as an additional sign that al-Qaeda is out of touch with so much of the world,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“But, even in its growing isolation, this is still a group that can do serious damage,” he said.

Zawahri’s threats contain little new, said Adam Raisman, analyst for the SITE Intelligence Group, a U.S. based terrorism monitor, “It’s the same message that he’s been carrying for quite a few years, you either leave our lands or suffer the repercussions.”

CIA Director Michael Hayden said last week that al Qaeda was still the biggest threat to U.S. safety, but pressure on al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan’s border regions with Afghanistan had kept the group “off balance” and diverted attention.

“I do not see any real or artificial spike (in terrorism activity) because of the American political process,” he told reporters after a think-tank appearance

“This is not an omnipotent enemy. This is an enemy whose actions we can affect by the actions that we take,” Hayden said in his speech. “Even if al Qaeda had this strong wish to do something between Date X and Date Y, it’s another thing to do it -- beyond just the wish.”

Editing by David Storey