A Resurgent Menace
U.S. spy agencies say al Qaeda's top leaders, once on the run, have regrouped
When President Bush talks about Osama bin Laden these days, it's usually to rally support for the U.S. effort in Iraq. Last month, he told an audience that bin Laden and his al Qaeda network "have made it clear they want to drive us from Iraq to establish safe haven in order to launch further attacks." But over the past year, U.S. intelligence agencies have completely revised their assessment of al Qaeda and reached an alarming conclusion: Bin Laden already has a safe haven-in Pakistan-and may be stronger than ever.
The shift is dramatic. Two years ago, when the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby, went to Capitol Hill to deliver his annual threat assessment, he described al Qaeda leaders as battered and isolated. "Osama bin Laden and his senior leadership no longer exercise centralized control and direction," he told Congress. The more serious threat, he added, was a burgeoning network of individual extremists and entrepreneurial cells inspired by bin Laden. That judgment remained essentially unchanged through early 2006.
When the current head of DIA, Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, visited Capitol Hill this year, he warned that the group's leaders are resilient and are actively plotting from their new base in Pakistan. "Al Qaeda retains the ability to organize complex, mass-casualty attacks and inspire others," Maples said. "Al Qaeda has consistently recovered from losses of senior leadership."
Damage control. The spy agencies' shift was driven by al Qaeda's resurgence as well as new information they had obtained about its deep involvement in recent terrorist plots. Privately, U.S. officials concede that they had overestimated the damage they had inflicted on al Qaeda's network. The captures of successive operational commanders, including 9/11 planner Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, amounted only to temporary setbacks; they were replaced with disturbing ease. "We understand better how al Qaeda is withstanding the offensive that was launched against it in 2001 and later," says a senior U.S. government official.
Iraq has, of course, been an undeniable boon for al Qaeda, both as a battleground and a rallying cause. But when it comes to exporting terrorism, U.S. intelligence is more worried today about the badlands of western Pakistan. That's where bin Laden has succeeded in reconstituting a safe haven after several years on the run. The rugged tribal provinces have long been ungoverned, and a controversial truce that the government of Pakistan signed last September with the tribes to go after al Qaeda has backfired. "There are indications that, due in large part to the truce, al Qaeda operatives can operate with a higher degree of impunity," says a U.S. counterterrorism official. "They have a greater sense of security and freedom of movement and can communicate more easily with fellow militants in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere." Indeed, despite being one of the world's most wanted men, Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's deputy, managed to issue at least 15 propaganda missives last year.
The tribal areas are now riddled with a burgeoning network of al Qaeda training camps. "We're seeing less brick and mortar operations in terms of training and more transient facilities that al Qaeda uses for its training and for operations planning purposes," says a U.S. intelligence official. "Much of their training is opportunistic-whatever they can do, whenever they can do it, wherever they can do it." There is apparently no shortage of trainers, or occasions for students to practice their lessons in neighboring Afghanistan, where al Qaeda has been forging closer ties with the revitalized Taliban.