July 11th, 2011
11:44 AM ET

Study: Western militants trained in Pakistan still #1 threat

By Paul Cruickshank, CNN Terrorism Analyst

Last weekend on his way to Afghanistan, Leon Panetta, the new U.S. defense secretary, stated that the U.S. was “within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda.” The greatest terrorist threat to the United States now came from Yemen rather than Pakistan, Panetta added, in what was the most optimistic statement yet from a senior Obama administration official on the state of the fight against al Qaeda and affiliated terrorist organization in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.

Yet according to a new study, which I authored, published last week by the New America Foundation, progress against al Qaeda in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region has not yet been reflected in the one metric that most counts.

Last year there were four serious terrorist plots against the West with training or operational links to established groups in Pakistan, the most in any year since al Qaeda consolidated its safe-haven in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in 2004.

Although al Qaeda has undoubtedly been thrown onto the backfoot after the death of Osama bin Laden and an intense drone campaign against its operatives in the tribal areas of Pakistan, the study outlined the continued danger posed by the safe haven which President Obama in 2009 called “the most dangerous place in the world.”

The new study finds that while the drone campaign in the tribal areas of Pakistan has degraded “Core” al Qaeda capabilities, it has by no means removed its ability to plot new attacks.

And some trends are creating cause for concern. As outlined in the study, al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban have exerted greater “command and control” of plots in recent years than ever before by using increasingly sophisticiated encryption techniques in internet communications with operatives dispatched to the West. In several recent cases, terrorist operatives in Pakistan were able to provide extra bomb-making tuition to Western operatives once they returned home.

According to the study, the terrorist organization has adapted to drone strikes by decentralizing its operations and training militants indoors inside small mountain shacks, according to the testimony of Western recruits who recently trained with militant groups in the region. It has also promoted new recruits into senior positions, including Western recruits with a keen understanding of Western vulnerabilities.

And the drone campaign may now be producing diminishing returns against al Qaeda. A dozen senior al Qaeda operatives were killed in 2008 but half that number were killed in each of the following years according to a tally by the New America Foundation. So far in 2011 only two senior al Qaeda operatives have been confirmed killed, including Ilyas Kashmiri, an experienced and deadly Pakistani Jihadist.

Furthermore a Pakistani military operation to remove the presence of pro-al Qaeda militants from North Waziristan – the epicenter of plots against the West in recent years – appears as remote as ever. While groups like the Pakistani Taliban remain they will likely continue to protect and harbor al Qaeda.

Last year al Qaeda and its affiliates were able to provide bomb-making training to several groups of Western militants who travelled to the tribal areas of Pakistan, including Faisal Shahzad, an American militant, who attempted and failed to carry out a bombing attack on behalf of the Pakistani Taliban in New York’s Time Square on May 1, 2010 that authorities stated could have been “devestating.”

While Panetta emphasized the threat now posed by Yemen-based terrorists, the metrics in my New America Foundation study suggest the terrorist safe-haven in Pakistan remains the most dangerous to Western countries, including the United States. Since 2009 there have been seven serious terrorist plots against the West with an operational or training link to terrorist groups in Pakistan and just two to Yemen. While only one terrorist group – al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular (AQAP) threatens the West from Yemen, the Times Square plot illustrated that more than one terrorist group in Pakistan is determined to attack the West.

In the survey of the 32 serious plots against the West since 2004 the study found that 44% of these plots had direct operational ties to terrorist groups in Pakistan, throwing into sharp relief the danger posed by the FATA terrorist safe-haven. The proportion of serious plots in which cell members trained with terrorist groups in Pakistan was higher still – 53% of all such plots against the West. By way of contrast only 6% of these plots had operational or training ties to terrorists in Yemen and 3% to Iraq. In only 38% of serious plots was there no overseas training.

As outlined in the study, many Western countries now face a significant threat from their citizens training in Pakistan. Germany in particular has recently seen an alarming rise in the number of its citizens travelling to the region, with over 200 suspected of having attended Jihadist encampments in the area after 9/11.

The fear is over what happens when such militants return home.

In almost all cases militants are travelling to the region to join the fight against U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, but their transit through FATA gives al Qaeda opportunities to recruit them for operations in their home countries.

At least 100 Western militants are suspected of being currently in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, and by some estimates there are several hundred linked to Jihadist groups there. As outined in the study, Western counter-terrorism officials believe at least 20 British extremists, 40 German recruits, 20-30 French militants, and 10 Belgian militants are currently in Jihadist encampments in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, as well as Canadians, Americans, Swedes, and militants from several other European countries.

U.S. counter-terrorism officials are amongst the most concerned about such travel flows. As outlined in my study during 2008-9 there was a significant rise in the number of militants travelling from the United States to Pakistan, travel flows which were difficult to track among the 200,000 U.S. residents annually making trips to the country.

The danger posed by this militant pipeline was demonstrated in September 2009 when U.S. authorities foiled a plot by Afghan immigrant Najibullah Zazi to bomb New York, the most serious plot on U.S. soil since 9/11.

Meanwhile, western militants are continuing to stream into the tribal areas of Pakistan allowing al Qaeda and its Pakistani affiliates opportunities to use them for attacks back in their home countries on a scale comparable at least to the July 7, 2005 London bombings six years ago last week.

This means that despite the dramatic breakthrough that the removal of its leader represented, al Qaeda will likely remain a significant international security threat for some time to come.

The full 66 page New America Foundation report is available here:


Post by:
Filed under: Afghanistan • Pakistan • Terrorism
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  38. douglas

    America is the biggest terrorist threat trying to run the show in the world. They should learn to concentrate on their own problems and stop sticking their nose into everyone elses business.

    July 19, 2011 at 6:25 am | Reply
  39. Nicole

    Easy, America is the number one threat,, No country dares to go to other countries and kill their civilians like the American Military,, all in the name of Democracy? ppllleeeaaasssseee,, maybe they have mistaken democracy for personal interest.. I agree with keithc,, totally.!

    July 18, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Reply
  40. keithc

    according to a global poll of 30,000 people in 30 countries in 2005, 75% of respondents said the USA was the world's greatest threat to global peace and world's largest terrorist. That fear and hate of the US will take a very long time to heal, and by the time it does the US will have invaded another country without justifiable reason.

    July 18, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Reply
    • qweryt

      Link? Name of the organization that did the poll? Data concerning the demographics of those polled? What countries? How were they polled? Telephone? Internet? There may be lies, dam-ed lies & then statistics, but nothing is worse than unsupported (or just made up) "statistics".

      July 19, 2011 at 1:53 pm | Reply
  41. C>Cantu

    The devil tempted Jesus offering Him the kingdoms, pleasures and wealth of the world as long as Jesus praised him. The same thing does Islam to Muslim monarchs and leaders, these bastards appropriate for themselves their countries natural resources (oil), they have hundreds of concubines and the worst sexual aberrations, also they have the power to free or incarcerate their people without questioning and always have the last word on any kind of decision. No wonder these devil worshipers must impose their satanic religion on the world using Muslim clerics as their puppets to glorify the Anti-Christ otherwise they risk losing all their "divine" privileges.

    July 18, 2011 at 8:07 am | Reply
  42. Galoot

    What? You mean the Paki Moo Slums are the #1 threat?

    What a shock!

    I am just stupified.

    How can this be?

    The Pakis? Really? lol!

    July 17, 2011 at 6:04 pm | Reply
    • gorgon bilyas

      fuk u dirty white filth, u deserved 9/11 and got i.. u skank

      July 17, 2011 at 6:12 pm | Reply
  43. federal reserve

    how is any "terrorist" gonna compare with the jews/israelis?

    USS Liberty & 9/11 are pretty hard to beat esp considering they got blamed on innocent arabs

    July 17, 2011 at 9:31 am | Reply
  44. blasius


    July 15, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Reply
  45. djse

    1. Ahmad Shuja Pasha
    2. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani
    3. Ayman al-Zawahiri

    July 14, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Reply
  46. ?

    why even ask this question...islamic fundamentalism is the threat...broad threat to say the least....al qaeda is a like the crips....a loosley affiliated network with a similiar goal....the next attack could come from anywhere in the fundamental muslim world.....

    July 14, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Reply
  47. PJ

    Number One Terrorist threat to the U.S.? Same as always- Boehner, McConnell, Cantor, Paul, Bachmann, Palin, Bush, Cheney, Yoo, Addington, Scalia and Thomas. Oh, and Blankfein.

    July 14, 2011 at 10:24 am | Reply
    • Peikovian

      It's a good thing Hugo Chavez delegated authority to you before he left for Cuba.

      July 17, 2011 at 7:22 am | Reply
  48. C. Cantu

    Islam is the #1 threat. Muslim clerics (ayatollahs, muftis, mullahs, imans, sheiks, ullemas, etc) supported by Islamic monarchs and leaders are the main responsible for the violence, hatred, terrorism, resentment and discrimination around the world. They preach their own distorted Islamic faith which lacks universal ethical and moral standards. Thanks to Islam, Muslim monarchs -as opposed to European monarchs- have absolute power, they entirely appropriate for themselves their countries' natural resources (oil), they have harems with hundreds of concubines and the greatest pleasures, they free or incarcerate their people without questioning and always have the last word on any kind of decision. No wonder they need to impose and spread their satanic religion otherwise they risk losing all their privileges.

    July 13, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Reply
    • Poor Righteous Teacher

      So... You posit that these villains "preach their own distorted Islamic faith", but than you condemn the entire religion in the same breath?!?!? That's some great critical thought process! Turn off the O'Reilly Factor, pick up a book, and learn – instead of being led. You sir are the true villain here; you make statements appear as fact, when even a child with basic knowledge would see you have no clue what you are talking about. Instead of taking the spew you hear at your church of loving kindess and recycling it as your own, again, please pick up a book.

      July 14, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Reply
  49. gorgon bilyas

    useless rubbish news, we all know who the real terrorists are INDIA, ISRAEL, UK AND THE FAT BASTAR*S

    July 13, 2011 at 6:06 am | Reply
    • jay

      You wear your feelings on your sleeves. Pakistan is emgering more and more as a complicite, underhanded, and two faced nation that is harboring terror. There is no argument that can deflect that. Even Fat Bastar's weren't born yesterday.

      July 13, 2011 at 4:58 pm | Reply
  50. Moi

    What the hell! The author just talks about western nations facing the threat from the Pakistan trained & based terrorists. What about India that has faced the brunt of terrorism for more than a decade, the most recent being the Mumbai carnage that left over 160 innocent people dead, mostly Indians & a number of foreigners as well.
    To the author, the terrorist camps are not just located on the Af-Pak border areas. They are very in operation in Pakistan occupied Kashmir and a news report recently stated that there are at least 14,000 terrorists ready to create havoc in India. Your analyses and story just centres around the west, think of the east of the border as well. In fact India has been saying this for a very long time that Pakistan is the epi-center for global terror & it fell on deaf years.
    Now the world is waking up to this fact!

    July 12, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Reply
    • Kashmiri

      "there are at least 14,000 terrorists ready to create havoc in India". Ask a Kashmiri living in indian occupied Kashmir and they will tell you, over 300,000 indian troops have been causing havoc on them. This is backed
      by many international human rights organizations. I do not care for the bloodshed and the Kashmir issue must be resolved thru conversation rather than killing. Do agree with you about West not giving a crap about the East, this article is no diffrent..

      July 12, 2011 at 3:00 pm | Reply
    • Yakobi.

      Pakistan is and always has been the problem. The scary thing is they also have nukes (which, btw, they wouldn't have if India didn't have them–consider THAT).

      July 12, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Reply
    • ozozoz

      Come on Moi, every one (adult, youngster, old. infant) on this planet knows about what Indian Forces are doing in Kashmir, Do have some guts to shed some light on that as well please .. Moi like chui mui..tit for tat, have you heard about that.

      July 13, 2011 at 12:57 am | Reply
  51. J

    It does not take a genius to figure out why this country is #1 in training terrorists:

    > ISI trains terrorists to attack Hotels in Mumbai.
    > Harbors and trains some of the terrorists who attacked the WTC.
    > Special thanks to USA to grow the fundamental Islamic thought process so that USSR could be stopped in its tracks to warm waters in Afghanistan.

    July 12, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Reply
  52. Me

    A Self-serving rant...

    July 12, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Reply

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