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Ashcroft: Al Qaeda threat is very real

"We continue to develop information that leads us to believe that al Qaeda wants to continue to strike the United States," Ashcroft said Sunday.

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CNN's Dana Bash on U.S. officials' response to a new audiotape purported to be from Osama bin Laden's top aide warning of new terror attacks.
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Attorney General John Ashcroft warned Sunday of the "very real potential" of new terrorist attacks against United States targets.

But he also said more than 100 al Qaeda activities around the world had been disrupted by the war on terrorism.

Ashcroft was speaking after a purported al Qaeda audio tape was broadcast on an Arab TV station threatening that "America will pay a very high price" for putting Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detainees on trial.

"The potential for us to be hit again is a very real potential," Ashcroft said appearing on "Fox News Sunday."

"The kinds of efforts that we're making, the kinds of information we're sharing with the American people, signal that we believe that there is such a potential -- but that we minimize the potential whenever we're alert."

Ashcroft indicated that U.S. efforts to prevent terrorist attacks have met with some success.

"I feel confident that more than 100 activities on the part of al Qaeda have been disrupted and interrupted around the world," Ashcroft said. "I don't know if I would say they are all al Qaeda. The network of terror has a changing face and there are different aspects of it and different players."

Tape purportedly from bin Laden deputy

Ashcroft's comments came as an audio tape said to be of Osama bin Laden's deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri aired Sunday on the Dubai-based Arab television network Al-Arabiya. (Full story)

The speaker on the tape identifies himself as al-Zawahiri. He says the United States and its allies will pay a "very high price" if alleged al Qaeda and Taliban detainees at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are tried in military tribunals and face the death penalty.

The tape makes no mention of bin Laden. It tells those "working or cooperating" with the United States that America is too weak to protect itself or its allies.

"The crusader America will pay a very high price for any harm that will affect any of the prisoners that they are holding," the tape says. "Those who are allies or helping America will pay the same price. Those who are handing over our brothers will pay the same price."

If the United States should prosecute the Guantanamo detainees, the speaker says, "it is sentencing its own people."

"We are saying to America one thing: What you saw with your eyes so far are only initial skirmishes," he says. "The real battle didn't start yet."

U.S. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said the identity of the voice on the tape was unknown.

"We haven't identified who actually submitted the tape," Ridge said, appearing on CNN's "Late Edition". "But [coming] from a terrorist, threatening American interests is not really surprising." (Full story)

Montasser el-Zayat, an Egyptian lawyer who represents Islamic fundamentalists, said he is "more than 100 percent sure the voice on the tape was al-Zawahiri's, because it had the same tone and 'expressions.'"

El-Zayat told CNN: "He is my friend, and I know his voice well."

Ashcroft: 'War still under way'

"It's not surprising," Ashcroft told ABC's "This Week." "It signals to us that the war is still under way, that al Qaeda still has the same intentions towards the U.S. that it did when it unleashed its savage attack on September 11."

Ashcroft added that the tape represents a key reason to continue aggressive activities against bin Laden's terrorist network.

Ridge told NBC's "Meet the Press," Sunday: "By and large, America, this is a permanent condition."

"The terrorists are looking at every phase of our economy, looking at how we operate."

But Ashcroft and Ridge said there is no plan to raise the terror alert level above its current yellow "elevated" status.

With anniversaries of two terrorist attacks approaching -- the East Africa U.S. embassy bombings five years ago this week, and the second anniversary of the 9/11 attacks next month -- Ashcroft was asked whether U.S. intelligence is picking up more threats.

"We continue to develop information that leads us to believe that al Qaeda wants to continue to strike the United States," Ashcroft replied. But, he said, it was not clear what role, if any, the anniversaries could play in plans for future attacks.

"My view is that one of the reasons we need to be as careful as we can be, one of the reasons we need to continue to be vigilant and continue to be active, is that we have a clear understanding that whenever we are active and we are disruptive, they delay, defer or default on their plans," Ashcroft said.

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