In June 2002 Al Qaeda operative Abd-al Halim Adl stated the following in a letter to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks: "Today we are experiencing one setback after another and have gone from misfortune to disaster...The East Asia, Europe, America, Horn of Africa, Yemen, Gulf and Moroccan groups have fallen. And Pakistan has almost been drowned in one push...If you look back you will find that you are the person solely responsible for all this because you undertook the mission and during six months, we only lost what we built in years."
It's difficult sometimes to recall that Al Qaeda was an organization on the ropes in 2002. Two-thirds of its leadership had been captured or killed, it had lost its Afghan training base and influential Muslim clerics around the world were lambasting it for killing civilians. But tens of billions of dollars and an additional war later, Al Qaeda is very much back in the ring, according to this week's National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which states that the terrorist group has "regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability, including a safe haven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas, operational lieutenants, and its top leadership." Any way you read it that's a pretty severe indictment by the nation's 16 intelligence agencies of the headway made by the Bush administration in the war on terrorism in the last five years.
This week's NIE paints the threat from Al Qaeda in much bleaker tones than one drafted between 2004 and 2005 and circulated within the U.S. government in April 2006, which found that, while Al Qaeda had metastasized into a more diverse movement capable of increasing the tempo of attacks worldwide, its leadership had been "seriously damaged," its operations had been disrupted, and it lacked a "coherent global strategy."
So what has gone wrong? An important part of the answer is that on the Bush administration's watch Al Qaeda has become able to operate with increasing impunity in the tribal provinces of western Pakistan along the Afghan border. It was in such a region, North Waziristan, that U.S. intelligence sources say last summer's Al Qaeda plot to explode ten American airliners over U.S. cities was planned, an operation timed to coincide with the fifth anniversary of 9/11. Yet, last September, rather than cracking down on Al Qaeda and Taliban militants operating in North Waziristan, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf organized a peace agreement. The result has been predictable. Not only have there been increased incursions by Taliban fighters to attack NATO forces in Afghanistan but, according to a threat assessment by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) disclosed last week, the peace deal was crucial to Al Qaeda's ability to successfully "improve its core operational capability."
That's a concerning development says Michael Sheehan, who, as the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator in the 1990s, coined the phrase "drain the swamp" with regards to neutralizing Al Qaeda's safe haven in Taliban Afghanistan. Sheehan elaborated to me, "what I was saying in the 1990s applies just as much today, that if you allow Al Qaeda to operate with virtual impunity anywhere in the world they will put together the logistics to launch attacks anywhere in the world. Of course, that said, it's much more difficult for Al Qaeda to launch attacks against the United States today because of the increased pressure put on them by security services across the globe since 9/11."
While this means that Al Qaeda has not yet established the sort of safe haven it enjoyed in Taliban-run Afghanistan it has been able to set up a number of smaller camps across Pakistan, exploiting the resources of Kashmiri jihadist groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Toiba, with whom it has deepened ties since 9/11. Almost every successful Al Qaeda operation has involved some element of formal training (it's actually very hard to learn off the Internet how to make a bomb that will work).
And it's from such camps that Al Qaeda has directed terrorist plots against the West in recent years, focusing particularly on attacking the United Kingdom by training British operatives of Pakistani descent in the art of bomb-making. By one measure Pakistan is an even more ideal base than Afghanistan for Al Qaeda because of its accessibility to western recruits: Four hundred thousand visits are made to Pakistan by British citizens back to their ancestral home each year.
Al Qaeda's recruitment of European operatives is deeply concerning to U.S. counter-terrorism officials because they can travel to the United States without applying for visas. Al Qaeda leaders realize that their best bet for another successful attack on U.S. soil is by using such recruits, especially because they have found it difficult to recruit operatives from the largely affluent and contented American Muslim community. For example, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the captured 9/11 mastermind, told his U.S. interrogators that he planned to use Europeans in the so-called "second wave" attacks following 9/11 because "they would be able to operate more easily in a stringent security environment." This explains why the most serious Al Qaeda plots against the United States in recent years, from shoe-bombers to airline plotters, have involved British operatives, trained in Pakistan.
Al Qaeda's ability to recruit a growing number of such recruits is directly related to the Bush administration's largest strategic blunder in its war on terrorism: the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. The April 2006 NIE found that the Iraq conflict had become "a cause célèbre" for jihadists. This week's report emphasizes the point still further, stating that "[the] association with [Al Qaeda in Iraq] helps Al Qaeda energize the broader Sunni extremist community, raise resources, and to recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for Homeland attacks." In a March 2007 Mother Jones study I conducted with Peter Bergen, we found that this "Iraq Effect" had generated a stunning sevenfold increase in the rate of fatal terrorist attacks by Jihadist groups around the world and a 25 percent increase in attacks on Western targets in the period after the U.S. invasion.
What is particularly sobering about the new NIE is that it indicates that Al Qaeda may start to use Iraq, a veritable laboratory for urban warfare, as a launching pad for attacks on the United States. Britain may already have been the victim of such an attack. Western intelligence services are investigating a possible Al Qaeda in Iraq role in last month's doctors' plot in the United Kingdom. It is significant that Al Qaeda in Iraq's new leader, Abu Ayyub al Masri, has affiliated himself much more closely with Osama bin Laden than his predecessor, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, and he committed himself to global jihad last November by stating "we will not rest from our jihad until we blow up the White House."
The new NIE points to the fact that Al Qaeda is now in a position to raise funds from Iraq for such operations. While the 9/11 operations cost around $500,000, last November a leaked U.S. government report found that insurgent groups in Iraq were raising up to $200 million a year through oil theft, kidnappings, and other nefarious activities. Al Qaeda in Iraq is therefore likely to have a war chest of several million dollars, which explains why, as early as 2005, Zawahiri was requesting the transfer of funds from Iraq to the core Al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan to sustain "[funding] lines that have been cut off."
In fact it can now be stated that Iraq and Pakistan constitute a new axis of Al Qaeda terrorism, with Al Qaeda in Iraq energizing jihadists and Al Qaeda in Pakistan directing that energy toward the home soil of the United States and its allies. Bilal Abdullah, the British-Iraqi doctor who drove his SUV into a Glasgow airport two weeks ago, may be indicative of this development in that he witnessed the U.S. invasion of Iraq first hand and made a trip from Britain to Pakistan in the summer of 2006 that is under investigation by British authorities.
Also representative of this emerging axis is the fact that Al Qaeda's most active operational commander in recent years has been Abdul Hadi Al Iraqi, a former Iraqi army major who engineered the formation of Al Qaeda in Iraq by persuading Zarqawi to join forces with Bin Laden in 2004. Until his capture in 2006 Abdul Hadi traveled back and forth between the Afghanistan/Pakistan border region and Iraq, shoring up ties between the groups, while directing British militants based in Pakistan to carry out the July 7 subway bombings in London, a plot to use fertilizer bombs to attack the UK in 2004, and, according to Pakistani intelligence sources, last summer's plot to bring down ten U.S. airliners.
And, just this Wednesday, the U.S. military in Iraq revealed that earlier this month it captured a senior Iraqi Al Qaeda operative, Khalid al Mashdani, who told his U.S. interrogators that he had acted as a key conduit between the top leaders of Al Qaeda in Iraq and Bin Laden and Zawahiri. A spokesman, General Kevin Bergner, told reporters that the U.S. military had learned from Al Mashdani and other captured operatives that "there is a flow of strategic direction, of prioritization of messaging and other guidance that comes from the Al Qaeda senior leadership to the Al Qaeda in Iraq leadership."
This strengthening Al Qaeda axis means that the war on terrorism has become much more difficult to fight. It seems as if the United States now has little choice but to leave significant forces in or near Iraq to prevent parts of the country from becoming a safe haven for Al Qaeda. At the same time, it will take significant resources to dislodge Al Qaeda from the foothold it has gained in Western Pakistan while the United States has been focused on Iraq. The scale of the challenge probably means that is inevitable that Al Qaeda's terrorist capabilities will increase still further before they can be degraded.
It's not that the Musharraf regime has not cooperated with the United States in the war on terrorism, because arguably Pakistan has done more than any other country to take on Al Qaeda, but rather that it needs to do much more. Pakistan's commitment to neutralizing Taliban militants has unfortunately been clouded by the long-standing desire by the country's top military brass to achieve "strategic depth" in its conflict with India. Because the Taliban is fiercely anti-Indian, unlike the current Afghan government, a strong Taliban is seen as serving the interests of Pakistan.
The Bush administration therefore needs to put much more pressure on the Musharraf regime to combat militants in the border area and allow U.S. Special Forces greater latitude to operate in western Pakistan. Since 9/11, the United States has provided Pakistan with $10 billion, mostly channeled to the country's military, which gives the Bush administration a great deal of leverage with Islamabad. While Pakistan's generals may want strategic depth with India, they certainly don't want U.S. deliveries of F16s to be cancelled nor for such planes to be grounded because U.S. military aid dries up.
The Bush administration's public comments suggest that their "softly, softly" approach toward Pakistan is linked to the desire to avoid an Islamist coup in a country with nuclear weapons. Thomas Fingar, a deputy director of National Intelligence, testified last week that "aggressive military action against extremists has caused the [Pakistani] government concern over the potential for tribal rebellion and a backlash by sympathetic Islamic parties." According to The New York Times such concerns contributed to an operation to capture Al Qaeda's number two, Ayman al Zawahiri, in 2005 being called off.
However the Bush administration should not take Musharraf's "après moi le déluge" rhetoric too much to heart. As Zawahiri himself implicitly acknowledged in a recent statement, the strength of the Pakistan's military means that militants are in no position to topple the Pakistani regime. Better, he stated, for Pakistanis to go and fight jihad in Afghanistan. And any "Islamist backlash" is probably manageable because Pakistan's coalition of Islamist parties are currently only polling at 5 percent, while the recent stand-off at Islamabad's Red Mosque harmed the standing of religious fundamentalists in the eyes of many Pakistanis. Moreover, Benazir Bhutto, the most likely civilian successor to Musharraf, this week criticized his peace deal with Taliban and Al Qaeda militants in a Pakistani TV interview and promised that in office she would "break the status quo."
In the aftermath of the Red Mosque standoff, President Musharraf vowed to "fight against extremism and terrorism no matter what province." As this week's NIE makes clear, to help prevent another terrorist attack in the United States, the Bush administration must make him keep his word.
By Paul Cruickshank