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: