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.
Pakistan has been an American ally against al Qaeda, but U.S. officials are increasingly frustrated by its inability-or unwillingness-to crack down in the tribal regions. "The Pakistanis do just enough to avoid jeopardizing U.S. support," says Daniel Byman, a former CIA analyst who teaches at Georgetown University. U.S. options for operating there are very limited: "You would put [Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf at risk, and you would face a heavily armed not only adversary but population," says a senior U.S. intelligence official.
There was one event in particular last year that prompted the intelligence community to rethink al Qaeda. Authorities in Britain last summer disrupted a plot to down airliners bound for the United States using liquid explosives. At the time, experts said that the sophisticated plan to simultaneously hit multiple targets bore the hallmarks of al Qaeda. Now, a senior U.S. government official tells U.S. News that the liquid explosives plot has been traced back conclusively to "midlevel operational elements of al Qaeda" in Pakistan. Another concern: The explosives could have worked, suggesting that al Qaeda has managed to replace the bomb makers it has lost. "What the British plot showed us was that they had people to backfill and people who were pretty smart," the official adds. "This was pretty damn clever."
British investigators also found that despite initial conclusions to the contrary, earlier plots like the July 2005 London subway bombings were also planned with the active participation of al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan. "In case after case, the hand of core al Qaeda can be clearly seen," Peter Clarke, Scotland Yard's counterterrorism chief, said in a recent speech. Two of the subway bombers-along with the leader of a group of five British citizens convicted last week of plotting to blow up a nightclub and power plants in London with fertilizer bombs-allegedly attended training camps together in Pakistan and met Abdul al-Hadi al-Iraqi, a senior al Qaeda figure now in U.S. custody at GuantÃÂÃÂ¡namo Bay.
"Conveyor belt." At the same time, the broader movement inspired by al Qaeda has only grown bigger, largely because of the group's powerful propaganda machine. Bin Laden and Zawahiri have been able to fill in the gaps between their megaplots with a rising stream of smaller-scale, homegrown attacks. "You could have hoped that we would have a serial war-that as al Qaeda declined, you could focus on its affiliates and the homegrowns," says the senior U.S. intelligence official. "I think now what we see is a parallel war, which is harder to fight, obviously."
The State Department issued a report last week warning about the emergence of a terrorist "conveyor belt" that seeks to radicalize alienated minorities and drive them toward violence. Overall, the report found that terrorist attacks worldwide jumped by more than 25 percent last year over 2005, with fatalities from those attacks rising by 40 percent.
The news is not entirely bad. In several countries with well-functioning governments and powerful security forces, al Qaeda has run into trouble. Two weeks ago, for example, authorities in Saudi Arabia announced that more than 170 suspected terrorists have been arrested in recent months as part of a plot to target oil fields and other targets. "The franchise in Saudi Arabia has been defeated," says Bruce Riedel, a veteran CIA analyst now with the Brookings Institution. "In Egypt, it never got off the ground. In Indonesia, there was a big threat in 2002 and 2003, but it seems to have lost momentum."
Even in these places, the success could be temporary. "It's not like they've defeated the thought," warns the senior U.S. intelligence official. "It's just that the capabilities of these cells to execute has been really damaged."
This story appears in the May 14, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.