WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The former Al Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, once planned to send militants to the United States on student visas to carry out attacks on U.S. soil, officials said on Monday.
But the plot, which came to light during a raid on an al Qaeda safe house in Iraq early last year, never got off the ground and Zarqawi was killed later in an attack by U.S. forces, officials said.
The plan, which was alluded to in congressional testimony last week by Defense Intelligence Agency Director Army Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, called for using student visas to get 10 to 20 militants into the United States.
Officials said the plot appeared to be Zarqawi's response to requests by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri, that the Iraq militant branch of al Qaeda carry out attacks in the United States.
ABC News first reported the existence of the plot on its Web site at www.abcnews.go.com.
"It never happened. There were no visas obtained and none were ever applied for," said one U.S. official knowledgeable about the plan who asked not to be identified.
Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said there was no credible evidence to suggest any imminent threat to the United States.
"This was more aspirational than operational," he said.
Maples referred to the plot in written testimony submitted last week to the House intelligence committee in which he said: "Documents captured in a raid on an al-Qaida in Iraq safe house in Iraq revealed AQI was planning terrorist operations in the U.S."
He had also made a similar statement to the Senate intelligence committee a week earlier but gave no details in either submission.
At least one al Qaeda militant other than Zarqawi who took part in the planning was killed by U.S. forces in Iraq, a U.S. official said.
The FBI said in a statement on Monday that it was aware of the DIA's information but added that there was no specific threat against the United States.
However, FBI Director Robert Mueller told the Senate intelligence committee that al Qaeda efforts to move operatives onto U.S. soil were ongoing.
"We believe that al Qaeda is still seeking to infiltrate operatives into the United States from overseas, those who have no known nexus to terrorism and using both legal and possibly illegal methods of entry," he said at the Jan. 11 hearing.
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