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									                                                                                New America Foundation

Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative Policy Paper

Al-Qaeda Central
An Assessment of the Threat Posed by the Terrorist Group
Headquartered on the Afghanistan-Pakistan Border
Barbara Sude
February 2010
A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in July 2007                  The    arguments    are   compelling,   but   analysts   have
assessed that al-Qaeda had “protected or regenerated key                  pronounced al-Qaeda dead or dying several times since it
elements of its Homeland attack capability, including: a                  was driven from Afghanistan. In mid-2003, for example, it
safehaven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal                   looked as if the group would not recover from the arrest of
Areas (FATA), operational lieutenants, and its top                        Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the jailing of other senior
leadership.”1 It was not as comfortable for the group as                  leaders in Iran, but it went on to support devastating attacks
Taliban-controlled Afghanistan had been before the attacks                in Saudi Arabia and Turkey that year, train operatives for
of September 11, 2001, and the group had lost many key                    attacks elsewhere, and strengthen its overseas presence. If
personnel over the years, but the Pakistan safe haven                     we measure al-Qaeda’s condition today by the criteria in the
allowed al-Qaeda to act with virtual impunity to plan, train              2007 NIE, we would have to say that concerted, multi-front
for, and mount attacks. In 2009, however, U.S. officials                  counterterrorist operations have had an impact and
frequently touted al-Qaeda’s unprecedented losses of mid-                 probably weakened the group in its mid-to-senior ranks—
level to senior commanders since the NIE—at mid-year, for                 possibly the worst damage since 2001. It has failed to
example, as many as “11 out of 20 of the Pentagon’s most                  mount an attack in a Western country since 2005, but we
wanted-list”2—to concerted strikes by U.S. unmanned                       cannot definitively say al-Qaeda now lacks the capacity to
aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the FATA. The casualties also                   mount an operation of some sort in the United States. The
have included prominent regional leaders who helped                       top leadership—bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri—is still
facilitate al-Qaeda’s safe haven, such as Pakistani Taliban               functioning, even though little is publicly known about
commander Baitullah Mehsud, killed in August. Terrorism                   them beyond their media presence. Although the capability
specialists   increasingly   characterized    al-Qaeda    leader          of the group’s operational lieutenants is unclear, al-Qaeda
Osama bin Laden as a mere figurehead, and at least before                 continues to coordinate operations with allies such as the
September 2009, it appeared that al-Qaeda had been                        Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, and it retains contacts in
unable to train operatives for attacks in Western countries               other countries who may be able to act in its name. The
since mid-2008 or earlier.                                                group certainly still benefits from the same safe haven in
                                                                          the FATA and seems firmly entrenched there. Arrests this
                                                                          year of suspected al-Qaeda operatives in Western countries,

Barbara Sude, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, is a former al-Qaeda analyst at the CIA. She has a doctorate from
Princeton University in Near Eastern Studies, specializing in Medieval Islam.
including the United States, speak not only to the group’s       This would include both “members” who swore allegiance
weaknesses, since its attacks were thwarted, but also to its     to bin Laden and close associates who worked principally
persistence in its mission despite setbacks.                     for al-Qaeda, and probably still describes al-Qaeda in the
                                                                 Pakistan-Afghanistan region today. This is not counting the
Still al-Qaeda “the Organization”                                volunteers it recruited and trained in unknown numbers
                                                                 since 9/11 to take on terrorist roles overseas or the members
Al-Qaeda’s seclusion in the FATA makes it difficult to           of sympathetic groups who may fight beside al-Qaeda in the
obtain specific information on the group’s overall strength      Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
and the status of key personnel, particularly in light of the
frequent aerial strikes during 2009. Damage reports
complicate analysis by conflating al-Qaeda, the Pakistani
                                                                 The obvious question now is whether the
and Afghan Taliban, and foreign extremists such as Uzbeks        pace of UAV strikes has been intense enough
who are not all affiliated with al-Qaeda. We can, however,
develop a rough assessment based on the group’s past
                                                                 to break up the organization—or at least to
practices, combined with what has become publicly known          remove the most experienced people and
about the leadership.
                                                                 disrupt planning.
As a starting point, al-Qaeda, meaning “the Base,” is first
an organization, a fact that has been obscured in the past
                                                                 The obvious question now is whether the pace of UAV
few years by media and academic emphasis on “al-Qaeda
                                                                 strikes has been intense enough to break up the
the Movement” and its ideology. Bin Laden and his
                                                                 organization—or at least to remove the most experienced
associates early on developed bylaws, committee structures,
                                                                 people and disrupt planning. Some reports say recruits
and—acknowledging that they risk death or capture—rules
                                                                 have trouble staying in one location for fear of strikes,6 and
for succession.3 Although information is sparse on the
                                                                 the Guardian estimated in September 2009 that the core
group’s current rulebook,4 past practice makes it likely that
                                                                 senior leadership has been reduced to “six to eight” men.7
al-Qaeda’s leaders have candidates in mind to replace key
                                                                 What we can verify in the past two years is successful
people. Just as Abu Hafs al-Masri (a.k.a.Mohammed Atef)
                                                                 targeting   of   well-known    figures,   including    senior
replaced bin Laden’s deputy Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri when
                                                                 operational leader Abu Laith al-Libi and chemical and
he drowned in 1996, in 2005 Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, then
                                                                 poison specialist Abu Khabab al-Masri. The tempo of drone
the finance chief, appears to have stepped in for Abu Faraj
                                                                 strikes also has caught some less publicly known but
al-Libi following the latter’s arrest. Operations continued as
                                                                 important al-Qaeda figures such as Pakistan operations
well. The London transit bombings went ahead without al-
                                                                 chief Usama al-Kini (Fahid Msalam)8 and his lieutenant
Libi, and the U.K.-based plot to bomb airliners remained on
                                                                 Ahmed Salim Swedan. Both men, suspects in the 1998
course despite the death of Hamza Rabia late the same
                                                                 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa, were killed in
                                                                 January 2009.

As a vanguard organization designed to support the
                                                                 Daniel Byman, director of the Security Studies Program at
development of a wider global jihad, al-Qaeda was always
                                                                 Georgetown University, has compared al-Qaeda to Hamas,
relatively small in core personnel strength, even when it
                                                                 noting that targeted killings can effectively weaken terrorist
was headquartered in Afghanistan, with estimates running
                                                                 groups as these groups reach down the ranks to less
at a few hundred people in the middle and senior ranks.5
                                                                 capable replacements.9 The problem is that the known

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people do not necessarily represent al-Qaeda’s total strength     June 2. Abu al-Yazid confirmed the group’s role in a July
or even all of its experienced people, because nobody             2008 interview with Pakistan’s Geo TV.13
outside the group knows who they all are.10 U.S.
government “most-wanted” lists, which are limited to              Whether or not the top two men involve themselves in daily
certain important people for convenience, cannot include          operational decision-making—and we cannot be certain
people whom intelligence collection efforts have not yet          they do not—Abu al-Yazid, a.k.a. Sheikh Saeed al-Masri,
discovered. Several of the militants killed since 2001 were       has over the past three years emerged in the public eye as
little known until either a plot was detected or a captured       the probable number three. This is the chief operating
lower-level operative talked—and they were not always less        officer post that before 9/11 belonged to Abu Hafs al-
capable. Some of the relatively obscure people who moved          Masri.14 By 2007, al-Qaeda’s media organization al-Sahab
up since 9/11, like Khalid Habib, had long jihadist               was calling Abu al-Yazid “leader of             the al-Qaeda
experience. Newer recruits by definition would be less            organization in Afghanistan.” While this implies a mainly
experienced, but their strong point for al-Qaeda is that, fully   regional role, his other title of “general official,” sometimes
aware of the group’s history of attacks on civilians, they        translated as “general manager,”16 is the same that was
probably have fewer qualms about killing or risking death         used by third-in-command Abu Faraj al-Libi.17 Abu al-Yazid
than many of al-Qaeda’s original members, some of whom            has not hesitated to assume a public presence that suggests
argued against 9/11.                                              a broad range of responsibilities, such as appealing to the
                                                                  Turkish people to support the global jihad,18 for example, in
The most important leaders remain at large—Osama bin              addition to coordinating with Taliban leaders.19
Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. According to al-Qaeda’s
original bylaws, they are the “commanders”—the amir and           Other surviving senior leaders thought to reside in the
deputy amir—of the organization, with a responsibility to         border region include Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, a Libyan who
“represent al-Qaeda internally and externally and bear the        has been involved in coordination with al-Qaeda in Iraq,20
responsibility” and to “discuss and approve the ‘Annual           and another Libyan, Abu Yahya al-Libi, al-Qaeda’s
Plan,’” having the deciding vote in a command council.            religious/legal chief, who has emerged in the past several
Because the two leaders remain in the shadows, appearing          years as a key media face for the group. Jarret Brachman, a
only in intermittent audio or video propaganda pieces             former terrorism specialist at West Point, believes that Abu
carefully orchestrated by al-Qaeda’s media arm, it is often       Yahya appeals more to a younger generation in the global
assumed that their principal roles, particularly in bin           jihadist movement than al-Zawahiri or even bin Laden.21
Laden’s case, are as propaganda leaders or even mere              We also can count a number of middle-ranking people with
figureheads. In October 2009, however, Gen. David                 significant roles, such as American Adam Gadahn, or
Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, told Brian            spokesmen for particular causes, like Moroccan-born
Williams of NBC News that bin Laden, in addition to               German Bekkay Harrach, who in September 2009
holding “enormous iconic importance,” also retains “a             threatened Germany in a video message.22
degree of operational importance.”12 Indeed, speeches by
the two al-Qaeda leaders appear to corroborate that. For          Trying for Business as Usual
example, following statements by bin Laden and al-
Zawahiri    in   March    and    April   2008,    respectively,   Despite personnel losses, core al-Qaeda has maintained
threatening Denmark because a Danish newspaper in 2005            many of the group’s Pakistan-based functions into 2009. It
had published cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad,            is still attracting and probably training recruits. According
al-Qaeda bombed the Danish Embassy in Islamabad on                to the Washington Post, U.S. and European officials say the

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flow of Western recruits traveling to Afghanistan and              as UAV strikes do not always stop communications. In
Pakistan “has continued unabated,” although the reports do         2008, Tunisian-born Moez Garsallaoui, suspected of close
not always distinguish between those going directly to             contact with al-Qaeda leaders, was able to e-mail his Belgian
assist the Taliban and those going to al-Qaeda.         Abu al-    wife—who administered a pro-al-Qaeda propaganda Web
Yazid claimed, without specifics, in a June 2009 interview         site—about his narrow escape from some type of missile
with Al-Jazeera television that training had been going on.        strike,   according    to   media    reports   of   European
Although U.S. citizens Bryant Neal Vinas and suspected al-         investigations.
Qaeda associate Najibullah Zazi trained in Pakistan in the
summer and fall of 2008, current training could happen             At Home in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas
under the radar of security services if conducted inside
buildings or in secluded private compounds rather than in          Al-Qaeda’s sanctuary in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border
established camps.                                                 region is a critical element in the group’s ability to plan and
                                                                   conduct attacks—it is al-Qaeda’s headquarters. In the eight
Al-Qaeda also has issued more than 50 media releases in            years since its ouster from Afghanistan, al-Qaeda has been
2009—similar to 2008’s numbers—including several                   embedding itself in a broad network of contacts throughout
video statements by al-Zawahiri and audio recordings of bin        the tribal areas and elsewhere in Pakistan, especially in the
Laden. This activity likely requires an extensive chain of         cities bordering the FATA, according to Pakistani and other
transmission to protect the location of the leaders, starting      specialists. 27Although some al-Qaeda personnel still appear
with a low-profile meeting to make the recording, then             to locals as foreign “Arabs,” others dress and live as locals
hand-carrying of the media to another location or locations        or have married Pakistani or Afghan women. Some al-
for editing and dissemination.                                     Qaeda fighters have family members in tow, a factor that
                                                                   can help them blend in. Moreover, the group has become
                                                                   more multi-ethnic over the years, with more Pakistani
The recent cases involving Western men or                          members. Rooting out al-Qaeda from the Pakistani border
targets suggest that al-Qaeda’s leadership still                   would be more complex than removing its relatively few
                                                                   operatives in Somalia, a comparison made by Sen. Russell
maintains communications with overseas                             Feingold during September 2009 Afghanistan strategy
associates.                                                        discussions, referencing the ease of targeting an al-Qaeda
                                                                   leader in East Africa.28

The recent cases involving Western men or targets suggest          Al-Qaeda had arranged fallback locations at least within
that al-Qaeda’s leadership still maintains communications          Afghanistan before 9/11 in anticipation of retaliatory
with overseas associates. U.S. terrorism suspect Najibullah        strikes,29 even though it did not anticipate a near complete
Zazi allegedly had contact with a senior al-Qaeda operative        departure from the country, and it might have tapped
via an intermediary, according to the Associated Press,            contacts in Pakistan as well. Since then it has developed
citing a U.S. intelligence official. In addition, although al-     redundant sources of protection and shelter that allow for
Qaeda’s media warnings historically have not acted as              rapid regrouping after losses and which frustrate attempts
signals to operatives, they can presage attacks, as happened       to uproot the organization. Although these protections are
in the Danish Embassy case. These cases indicate that              far from guaranteed—especially against drone attacks—
Pakistan-based al-Qaeda maintains enough contacts to               they lend the group significant flexibility. Only the most
know operatives are in a target area. Countermeasures such         relentless counterterrorism campaigns have been effective

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against   al-Qaeda—and     then   only    temporarily.      The
organization’s movements since 9/11 illustrate both its            2005 After escaping South Waziristan, al-Qaeda spread out
resilience and the impact of counterterrorism measures.            in the FATA, creating new hubs in North Waziristan and
                                                                   Bajaur.35 Protectors in the latter agency included Maulana
2001 to mid-2002 In the face of U.S. assaults on                   Faqir Mohammed, former leader of the militant Tanzim
Afghanistan and its Taliban rulers, al-Qaeda moved its             Nifaz Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM).36 Terrorist planning
personnel and their families from various locations in             and training apparently resumed quickly after the move,
Afghanistan to Pakistan in several waves from October              because      al-Qaeda     operatives   successfully   attacked
2001 to early 2002. Initially they encountered little              transportation targets in London in July 2005.
resistance at the border from Pakistani   authorities.30   Some
leaders settled in the FATA, while others moved to cities                  2007:
                                                                   2006 to 2007 With pressure on the group reduced after
such as Karachi, where they probably had prearranged safe          Pakistani government officials negotiated several peace
houses. In 2001, al-Qaeda was linked to attempted attacks          deals with local leaders, al-Qaeda gradually drifted back
in Singapore. That same year it tried to down an airliner          through both Waziristans,37 in part because of an alliance
over the Atlantic, and in 2002 it asserted responsibility for      with Baitullah Mehsud, whose territory spanned North and
blowing up a synagogue in Tunisia.                                 South. British authorities, meanwhile, uncovered a major
                                                                   al-Qaeda plot to bomb airliners en route to North America,
Late 2002 to 2003 While strong U.S. and Pakistani                  and U.S. intelligence assessments, notably the 2007 NIE,
counterterrorism work led to the capture of important al-          stressed that the group appeared to have retained its
Qaeda figures such as Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and                   operational capabilities despite counterterrorism measures
Ramzi bin al-Shibh in the urban areas, others were                 since 2001 .
consolidating bases for training and planning in South
Waziristan, near Wana and Shakai, where they were
protected by local leaders like Ahmedzai Wazir Nek
                                                                   Al-Qaeda today appears to maintain                          a
Mohammed.31 Some senior al-Qaeda associates, possibly              presence in many of the same areas of the
including Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, took refuge in
Quetta, where the son of “blind sheikh” Omar Abdel-
                                                                   FATA as it did in 2007, despite military
Rahman was arrested in February 2003.32 Al-Qaeda                   assaults and drone strikes.
launched attacks in Yemen, Kenya, and Saudi Arabia, and
backed bombings in Indonesia and Turkey.
                                                                   Al-Qaeda today appears to maintain a presence in many of
2004 Pakistani forces, after initial missteps and troop            the same areas of the FATA as it did in 2007, despite
losses, assaulted the South Waziristan safe haven with jets        military assaults and drone strikes. In mid-2008, a tribal
and helicopter gunships, driving al-Qaeda from that area.          elder   in     South    Waziristan told New      York Times
Nek Mohammed was reported killed by a U.S. missile.                correspondent Dexter Filkins that “important Arabs” who
Although al-Qaeda sympathizers conducted devastating               rode “Arabian horses” were in the mountains of the agency,
attacks on trains in Spain in March, the core organization         while Arab fighters moved freely in the towns.38 During a
failed to mount any major operations that year. Its media          late 2008 Pakistani military assault in Bajaur, a military
releases grew more sophisticated by the end of the year,           spokesman noted that “foreign militants” had been
however, including the first bin Laden video appearance            effectively targeted.39 While anecdotal reports often fail to
since 2001.                                                        distinguish between foreign fighters such as Islamic

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Movement of Uzbekistan members, who have had a                        established to fight in Kashmir.47 One of these groups,
checkered relationship with al-Qaeda, and the fighters of al-         Harkat ul-Mujahedin (HUM),48 shared an al-Qaeda camp in
Qaeda itself, they can offer a partial picture. In October            Afghanistan in the late 1990s; it suffered major losses from
2009, reporters from the U.K. Telegraph talked to an                  U.S. cruise missile strikes in 1998 retaliating for the U.S.
experienced Chinese fighter in South Waziristan. It is likely         embassy bombings in East Africa. A HUM offshoot, Jaish-
he was associated with the Turkistan Islamic Party, which             e-Mohammed (JeM), helped senior al-Qaeda personnel and
has been close to al-Qaeda.        A September 2009 UAV               associates escape to the Punjab after 9/11.49 Senior al-Qaeda
strike in North Waziristan targeted Ilyas Kashmiri, a senior          official Ilyas Kashmiri, who also commanded the HUM-
al-Qaeda commander who resurfaced alive in October.                   related group Harkat ul-Jihad-i-Islami (HUJI), came out of
Some press reports suggest that al-Qaeda associates have              JeM, as did Rashid Rauf, implicated in the 2006 al-Qaeda
been gravitating back to urban areas of Pakistan as well.             plot to blow up airliners.50 Another militant group, Lashkar-
                                                                      i-Jhangvi, allegedly helped al-Qaeda personnel escape from
Maintaining Ties to Militants in and                                  the Pakistani coast and smuggle out gold in 2001-02.51
Beyond the FATA                                                       According to Ahmed Rashid, JeM and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LT),
                                                                      the group implicated in the 2008 terrorist attacks on
Al-Qaeda is able to hold on to its safe havens in the FATA            Mumbai, India, have channeled suicide volunteers and
in part because of personal ties to certain tribes and                other recruits to al-Qaeda, including British nationals.52
families. It is clear from the current conflict that al-Qaeda
has secured allies in Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, the
“Pakistani Taliban” or TTP, and other mainly Pashtun
                                                                      Al-Qaeda’s ties to Punjab-based militants are
groupings. While al-Qaeda has been particularly close to the          likely to deepen as these groups become more
Mehsuds—including the late TTP leader Baitullah and his
successor Hakimullah—in the past three years, the
                                                                      directly involved in fighting in the Afghan
Haqqani network, with a presence in North Waziristan and              border region.
across the border in Khost, Afghanistan, was an important
protector even before 9/11. Pakistani journalist Ahmed
Rashid notes that Jalaluddin Haqqani, an associate of bin             Al-Qaeda’s ties to Punjab-based militants are likely to
Laden since the Afghan war against the Soviets, was a key             deepen as these groups become more directly involved in
organizer of al-Qaeda’s escape into Waziristan in 2001.               fighting in the Afghan border region. According to The
Author Lawrence Wright mentions that al-Zawahiri’s wife               Times of London, citing intelligence sources, 5,000 to
was taking refuge in a Haqqani-owned building on the                  8,000 militants from southern Punjab have been fighting
Afghan side of the border when she was killed by a U.S.               in Afghanistan and Waziristan.53 The Pakistani newspaper
airstrike in late 2001.44 Al-Qaeda probably maintains ties to         Dawn in early October 2009 reported the assessments of
Jalaluddin’s son Sirajuddin, also reportedly a leader in the          security specialists in the Pakistani heartland that Punjabi
network. Other regional associates of al-Qaeda from the               militant groups would become more involved in terrorist
Soviet war period include Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, although               attacks there.54 A few days later a JeM member, an associate
he has denied current ties to the group.45                            of Ilyas Kashmiri, was apprehended during an assault by
                                                                      TTP fighters on Pakistan’s army headquarters.55
If al-Qaeda has to leave the FATA for other parts of
Pakistan, particularly cities such as Lahore46—it will be able
to turn to certain Punjab-based militant groups originally

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                                                                   employing rhetoric that emulates al-Qaeda’s global jihadist
Not Giving Up on Afghanistan                                       message (tactics it had avoided before 9/11).61 Some Taliban
                                                                   leaders also have closer personal ties to Arab jihadists.
Al-Qaeda’s commitment to Afghanistan and the Afghan                According to Pashtun journalist Mukhtar Khan, Bajaur
Taliban should not be underestimated. The Afghan-Soviet            commander Qari Ziaur Rahman, who represents the region
war, in which bin Laden claims major battlefield                   on Mullah Omar’s shura council, grew up in Arab
accomplishments, gave him the inspiration to promote a             mujahedin camps.62
global jihad and establish al-Qaeda. He sees Afghanistan as
a home and has owned property near Jalalabad, according            Being a small organization, al-Qaeda probably has few
to his son.        Bin Laden swore allegiance to Taliban leader    personnel remaining inside Afghanistan, but the ease of
Mullah Omar as the movement came to dominate                       crossing the border63 means its people are almost certainly
Afghanistan, and renewed that pledge in a public statement         there in some capacity. Indeed, in July 2008 a Pakistani
in 2001. His loyalty to the country comes out in the words         Geo TV reporter interviewed Abu al-Yazid somewhere in
he used in a 1997 interview with Pakistani journalist              the Khost area. In a June 2009 interview, Abu al-Yazid
Hamid Mir: “The pious caliphate will begin from                    asserted that al-Qaeda members and other foreign
Afghanistan.”           In May 2007, Abu al-Yazid pledged          associates   were       fighting   in   Afghanistan     and    had
allegiance to Mullah Omar again when al-Qaeda appointed            participated in an attack on U.S. forces near Khost airfield
him Afghanistan commander,              and his statements since   in 2008, although he avoided giving numbers.64 James
then imply that al-Qaeda is working to help regain                 Jones, the White House national security adviser, estimated
Afghanistan under the assumption that the Taliban would            in early October 2009 that al-Qaeda had fewer than 100
again be willing to host the terrorist organization.               fighters in the country.65A hundred would not be
                                                                   insignificant for the group, however, and recent terrorism
                                                                   investigations have revealed that its recruits, such as
Despite the rift that developed between al-                        Belgian Moez Garsallaoui, often cross the border from
Qaeda and the Taliban in the wake of 9/11,                         Pakistan to fight. 66

they have become closer in recent years.                           Still a Threat at Home and Abroad

                                                                   Al-Qaeda’s involvement in attacks in Pakistan—and
Despite the rift that developed between al-Qaeda and the
                                                                   probably in Afghanistan—does not mean the group has
Taliban in the wake of 9/11, they have become closer in
                                                                   given up on terrorist strikes in the United States and other
recent years. In June 2009, Abu al-Yazid told an Al-Jazeera
                                                                   Western countries. Its leaders cling to a global vision of
interviewer that al-Qaeda and the Islamic Emirate of
                                                                   jihad even when their plans fail. Having long ago defined
Afghanistan were fighting “side-by-side” as “brothers.”59
                                                                   the United States and its allies as “Crusaders and Jews”
Taliban fighters have recounted to Newsweek how al-Qaeda
                                                                   who    are    actively     attacking    Muslims,      they    seem
urged embittered members of the Taliban to renew the
                                                                   unconcerned whether a foe is a “near enemy” (i.e., Muslims
fight soon after the two groups found refuge in Pakistan.
                                                                   deemed apostate or heretical) or a “far enemy” (Americans
They added that al-Qaeda trained Taliban fighters in
                                                                   or other “non-believers”) and will attack both. Regardless of
making improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and in suicide
                                                                   whether its resources are tight, al-Qaeda continually seeks
tactics, although the Taliban now does its own training.60
                                                                   opportunities to engage the enemy—even if preparations
The Taliban also has taken a leaf from al-Qaeda propaganda
                                                                   take years, and even if the opportunities could jeopardize its
in recent years, using human images in videos and

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safe havens. “Core” al-Qaeda has returned time and again           East Africa: Al-Qaeda developed ties in East Africa during
to certain principal objectives:                                   its residence in Sudan, when it had a training mission in
                                                                   Somalia. Experienced operative Harun Fazul (Fazul
The United States Al-Qaeda has been assiduous since 9/11           Abdullah Mohammed) redeployed there after 9/11, building
in trying to identify, train, and place operatives in the          up a local presence that attacked Israeli targets in Kenya in
United States to conduct attacks—Vinas and Zazi may be             2002. Since then, al-Qaeda has been trying to influence
only the latest examples—and in attempting to send in              Islamic extremist groups such as al-Shabab in Somalia,
attackers from outside, as in the 2001 Richard Reid shoe           recently through the late Saleh Nabhan.
bomb plot or the 2006 aviation plot mounted from Britain.
This is in tandem with efforts to remove the U.S. presence         North Africa: Longtime Libyan, Moroccan, and Algerian
from Muslim lands, and al-Qaeda leaders have repeatedly            members of al-Qaeda may have influenced the senior
stated their belief that they can outlast the American             leaders to cement ties to Algerian extremists who became
commitment to those countries.                                     the core of the group called al-Qaeda in the Islamic
Afghanistan Al-Qaeda looks for elimination of the foreign
presence, cross-border freedom of movement, and a                  Al-Qaeda in a Tight Spot?
sympathetic government in power to allow its return.
                                                                   Since 2001, al-Qaeda has replaced some of its mid-ranking
Pakistan Soon after 9/11, bin Laden called on the Pakistani
Pakistan:                                                          to senior leaders several times, adroitly moved its locations
military to rise up against the Musharraf regime, and al-          ahead of counterterrorism forces, and continued preparing
Qaeda is assessed to have supported assassination attempts         local and overseas attacks. The leadership in many ways has
in late 2003. Although the group has occasionally backed           created a more mobile and agile organization than it had in
off because of its safe haven needs—for example, when              Sudan or Afghanistan, while expanding its base of active
tribal   hosts   made   pacts      with   the   government—its     sympathizers. At the same time, it continues to need
consistent pattern has been to target the Pakistani                relatively secure, but sometimes changing, locations to
government for cooperating with United States.                     house its personnel and their families, and to meet with
                                                                   operatives. Pakistan’s tribal areas and nearby towns have
U.S. coalition allies: A large part of al-Qaeda’s effort goes to   provided that safe haven. However, the combination of
breaking the will of U.S. “crusader” partners. In addition to      targeted killings, Pakistani military activity, and changing
conducting attacks in Britain, backing attacks that killed         political dynamics within the Afghan Taliban may be
Australians in Indonesia, and striking the Danish Embassy          leaving al-Qaeda especially vulnerable to relentless, multi-
in Pakistan, the group has threatened attacks in several           front pressure. The following are major variables in al-
European countries, most recently Germany.                         Qaeda’s ability to survive:

Arabian Peninsula: Al-Qaeda paid for its strategic error in            •    The accuracy of intelligence on the group’s
2003 of conducting attacks in Saudi Arabia—its operatives                   leadership actions and locations.
were arrested or killed—but it constantly tries to regain a            •    The extent of Islamabad’s resolve to maintain an
foothold    there.   During     2009,      al-Qaeda’s   regional            offensive against militants in the FATA and
organization consolidated its presence in Yemen, where it                   elsewhere in the Pakistan.
also tries to target U.S. and Yemeni government interests.

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     •    The ability of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and/or NATO
          forces to seal border crossing routes favored by al-                   2 Mary Louise Kelly, “Officials: Bin Laden Running Out Of Space To

          Qaeda-linked fighters.                                                 Hide,” NPR Morning Edition, June 5, 2009, quoted in

     •    Al-Qaeda’s range of Pakistani supporters. Has it             

          put too many resources into the TTP, particularly                      3 “Al-Qaeda Bylaws,” Harmony Document AFGP-2002-600048,

          allies of Baitullah and now Hakimullah Mehsud,                         translated April 18, 2002, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point,

          now directly targeted in Islamabad’s current                 

          offensive?                                                             4 The experience of Bryant Neal Vinas suggests the organization retains

     •    The extent to which al-Qaeda leaders attempt to                        bureaucratic impulses. Vinas was asked to fill out forms in triplicate before

          leave Pakistan or shift to its urban areas, increasing                 an exam to test his suitability for a suicide attack, according to a Guardian

          the risk of capture.                                                   report. Jason Burke and Ian Black, “Al-Qaida: Tales from Bin Laden’s

     •    The continued willingness of Afghan Taliban                            Volunteers,”, September 10, 2009,

          leaders to offer al-Qaeda a potential alternative safe       

          haven there.                                                           laden
                                                                                 5 For example in comments by Saudi dissident Saad al-Fagih to Reuters.

Wherever al-Qaeda has maintained a refuge, three                                 “ANALYSTS VIEW: The state of al-Qaeda,” March 11, 2009,

interdependent constants have enabled the group to survive             

under pressure and will be key to its resiliency in South                        6 Nic Robertson and Paul Cruickshank, “Belgian ‘al-Qaeda cell’ linked to

Asia at this juncture. One is organization: al-Qaeda's                           2006 airline plot,”, February 13, 2009,

hierarchical       structure has        allowed      the      group        to

systematically acquire and disburse its human and material                       html

resources for operational needs--and for rapid regrouping if                     7 Ian Black and Richard Norton-Taylor, “Al-Qaida faces recruitment crisis,

necessary. Another is the vision and tenacity provided                           anti-terrorism experts say,”, September 10, 2009,

by Osama bin Laden. Even when bin Laden has appeared to                

act in a "hands-off" manner, it usually has been because                         crisis

he has already personally selected mission leaders whom he                       8 Zahid Hussain, “Usama al-Kini, head of al-Qaeda in Pakistan, killed by

trusts    to    act    alone     if   necessary.      A    third     is the      US military,” timesonline, January 9, 2009,

leadership abilities and creativity of those subordinate               

commanders, for example, a KSM or Abu Hafs. All three                            9 Daniel Byman, “Kill or Be Killed,” Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2009,

elements are important in assessing the impact of                      

counterterrorism               measures.            Although               al-   620730.html

Qaeda's organizational structure might help hold the group                       10 Compare the situation to 2003 when, the Washington Post has noted,

together for a time under a talented subordinate should bin                      CIA Director George Tenet told Congress that “more than one-third of the

Laden be removed, "core" al-Qaeda's longer term survival                         top al-Qaeda leadership identified before the [Afghanistan] war has been

as a major challenge to US interests would be by no means                        killed or captured.” President Bush later made that “about half.” Karen

assured without the third component of its founder's                             DeYoung and Walter Pincus, “Al-Qaeda's Gains Keep U.S. at Risk, Report

influence.                                                                       Says,” Washington Post, July 18, 2007,

1Director of National Intelligence, “National Intelligence Estimate: The         dyn/content/article/2007/07/17/AR2007071700099.html
Terrorist Threat to the US Homeland,” July 2007,                                 11 “Al-Qaeda Bylaws”

New America Foundation –                                                                                             page 9
12 Brian Williams video interview with Gen. David Petraeus, MSNBC,            21 Jarret Brachman, “The Next Osama,” Foreign Policy, September 10,

October 1, 2009,                2009,
13 M. Ilyas Khan, “Al-Qaeda leader in TV Interview,” BBC News, July 22,
2008,; for text, see                   22 Raffaelo Pantucci, “Bekkay Harrach: The Face of German Terror,”, misdated as June 21, 2008.                            Terrorism Monitor: 7, October 1, 2009,
14 Carol Grisanti and Robert Windrem, “Al-Qaida senior leader grants rare[tt_news]=3556
TV interview,” NBC News Deep Background, July 21, 2008,                       3&tx_ttnews[backPid]=26&cHash=7e18ae7224            23 Craig Whitlock, “Flow of terrorist recruits increasing,” Washington
x. Although the story of the interview is correct in characterizing the       Post, October 19, 2009,
number three position, it is incorrect in stating that Abu Ubaidah al-Masri   dyn/content/article/2009/10/18/AR2009101802549.html

held that job. Abu Ubaidah probably was a notch lower in the hierarchy,       24 Ahmad Zaydan interview on Al-Jazeera Television, June 21, 2009,
given his alleged direct involvement in the 2006 plot to bomb aircraft. (dated July 7, 2009)
Mark Mazzetti, “Qaeda Is Seen as Restoring Leadership,” New York              25 “Correction: Terrorist Suspect Stories,” Associated Press, October 16,
Times, April 2, 2007,                                                         2009, cited in             26 Intercepted e-mails to his wife in 2008. Nic Robertson and Paul
r=2&hp=&pagewanted=all&oref=slogin                                            Cruickshank, “Belgian ‘al-Qaeda cell’ linked to 2006 airline plot,”
15 Open Source Center, October 1, 2009, summary of Mustafa Abu-al-  , February 13, 2009,
Yazid in a September 30, 2009, statement eulogizing Baitullah Mehsud
released by al-Sahab Establishment for Media Production.                      html
16 “The U.S. Department of Defense Central Command issued the                 27 Ahmed Rashid, Descent Into Chaos (New York: Penguin Books, 2009),
following newsletter: Al-Jazirah Satellite Channel Television in Arabic at    268-272. Mukhtar A. Khan, “A Profile of Militant Groups in Bajaur Tribal
1201 GMT on 24 May carries the following announcer-read report over           Agency,” in Hassan Abbas, ed., Pakistan’s Troubled Frontier (Washington,
video: Al-Jazirah has obtained video footage of a person called Mustafa       DC: The Jamestown Foundation, 2009), 96. Sami Yousafzai and Ron
Abu-al-Yazid, who presents himself as the general official [Al-Mas'ul al-     Moreau, “The Taliban in Their Own Words,” Newsweek, October 5, 2009,
Amm] of the Al-Qa'ida Organization in Afghanistan,”                           36, 39.
May 25, 2007,                 28 Sen. Feingold (D-Wis.) suggested that the United States concentrate on
17     disrupting al-Qaeda in Pakistan rather than building up in Afghanistan in
18 Mustafa Abu al-Yazid statement “Advice to the Turkish People,” Open        order to deter a resurgence of the group. He cited as effective tactics the
Source Center summary of audio message on jihadist Web sites, June 10,        U.S. operations in Yemen and Somalia, which included the targeting by
2009.                                                                         U.S. aircraft of al-Qaeda official Saleh Nabhan as he drove along the
19 Mullah Dadullah interview with Al-Jazeera: “He planned that operation      Somali coast in September. Scott Wilson, “On War, Obama Could Turn to

in details and guided us through it. The operation was a success.” “Taliban   GOP,” Washington Post, October 1, 2009,
leader says bin Laden alive,”, May 1, 2007,                     dyn/content/article/2009/09/30/AR2009093005114.html

ml                                                                            29 At Tora Bora, for example, al-Qaeda had “developed fortifications,
20 A 2006 captured letter from Atiyah to Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi                stockpiled with weapon systems, ammunition and food,” according to the
illustrates Atiyah’s prominent role in al-Qaeda: “Letter Exposes new Leader   U.S. Special Operations Command’s history of Operation Enduring

in al-Qa`ida High Command,” Combating Terrorism Center at West                Freedom. United States Special Operations Command History 1987-2007,
Point, September 25, 2006.                                                    n.d., 93.

New America Foundation –                                                                                         page 10
Also, Bakr Atyani, a former Middle East Broadcasting Company bureau          43 Rashid, Descent Into Chaos, 268.

chief in Pakistan, maintains that bin Laden deputy Abu Hafs al-Masri told    44 Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,
him in a June 2001 interview, “We are anticipating an American strike,       (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 371.
yes, but we are ready to evacuate our bases within 30 minutes.” Quoted in    45 “Hizb-i-Islami,”

Peter L. Bergen, The Osama Bin Laden I Know (New York: Free Press, 
2006), 285.                                                                  46 Al-Qaeda probably has people in Lahore, since Vinas says he was
30 A veteran Pashtun politician said that no Pakistani troops were           recruited for the group there in 2007. Michael Powell, “U.S. Recruit

deployed at the Waziristan border at the time, allowing al-Qaeda to set up   Reveals How Qaeda Trains Foreigners,” New York Times, July 23, 2009,
in South Waziristan. Quoted in Rashid, Descent Into Chaos, 268.    
31 Ibid., 270-271.                                                           47 Pakistan has banned most of these groups, but their members continue

32 Ibid., n. 10, 449.                                                        to operate.
33 Abbas, ed., Pakistan’s Troubled Frontier, 5.                              48 A longtime leader of Harkat ul-Mujahedin, originally Harkat ul-Ansar,
34 Rashid, Descent Into Chaos, 272.                                          Fazlur Rehman Khalil, was a signatory of al-Qaeda’s February 1998
35 Yousafzai and Moreau, “The Taliban in Their Own Words,” 36, 39.           “fatwa” establishing the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews
36 Khan, “A Profile of Militant Groups in Bajaur Tribal Agency,” in Abbas,   and Crusaders.
ed., Pakistan’s Troubled Frontier, 96.                                       49 Rashid, Descent Into Chaos, 224.
37 Arif Janjua and Nick Meo, “In the Pakistani mountains of Waziristan,      50 “Fears rise over militants in Punjab,”, Oct. 6, 2009,
young jihadis wait for martyrdom,”, October 11, 2009,          library/dawn/news/pakistan/provinces/04-fears-rise-over-militants-
of--Waziristan-young-jihadis-wait-for-martyrdom.html                         punjab-qs-13
38 Dexter Filkins, “Right At the Edge,” New York Times, September 5,         51 Rashid, Descent Into Chaos, 224.
2008,                 52 Ibid., 281.
t.html?_r=1                                                                  53 Zahid Hussain, “Punjabi militants form unholy alliance with Taleban
39 Ayaz Gul, “Pakistan Says Al-Qaida Operative Killed in US Missile          fighters in the west,” The Times, October 16, 2009,
Strike,” Voice of America, November 19, 2008,                                   54 “Fears rise over militants in Punjab,”
6517.html                                                                    55 Hassan Abbas, “Deciphering the attack on Pakistan’s Army
40 Janjua and Meo, “In the Pakistani mountains of Waziristan, young          headquarters,” The AfPak Channel, Foreign Policy, October 11, 2009,
jihadis wait for martyrdom,” and                                                      56 A local notable in 1996 granted him a tract of land in Jalalabad and a
41 “Ilyas Kashmiri alive, lays out future terror strategy, “ Daily Times,    mountain in the Tora Bora area. Najwa bin Laden, Omar bin Laden, and

October 15, 2009,                                                            Jean Sasson, Growing Up bin Laden (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009),\10\15\story_15-10-        152
2009_pg1_11. Munir Ahmad and Chris Brummit, “Pakistan: Al-Qaida              57 Interview conducted March 18, 1997, in Islamabad, Pakistan, and

commander killed in US strike,” Associated Press, September 17, 2009,        translated from Urdu,                     58 Center for Defense Information, Afghanistan Update, May 24, 2007,
42 Sara A. Carter and Raza Khan, “Al-Qaeda extends to Somalia, Yemen,”

Washington Times, September 10, 2009,                                        59 Zaydan interview on Al-Jazeera Television.            60 Yousafzai and Moreau, “The Taliban in Their Own Words,” 39, 42.

New America Foundation –                                                                                       page 11
61 Tom Gjelten, “Intel: Al-Qaida Down, Taliban Rising,” NPR, October 22,

2009,       hanalqaidasrole.html; The Geo TV reporter was Najib Ahmed, mentioned
62 Mukhtar A. Khan, “A Profile of Militant Groups in Bajaur Tribal         in Khan, “Al-Qaeda leader in TV interview.”
Agency, “ Terrorism Monitor: 7, March 19, 2009, Jamestown Foundation,      66 Robertson and Cruickshank, “Belgian ‘al-Qaeda cell’ linked to 2006[tt_news]=3472        airline plot.”; It is impossible to confirm the Afghan defense minister’s
9&tx_ttnews[backPid]=7&cHash=a3e8ad5b5f                                    claims in 2009 that some 4,000 “foreign fighters” were in Afghanistan,
63 Bin Laden’s son Omar says his father would abruptly wake him up on a    coming from Chechnya, North Africa, and—he adds, confusing the

whim to hike over the mountains from Tora Bora to Pakistan and back        picture—Pakistan. Rahim Faiez and Heidi Vogt, “Foreign fighters join
when they lived in Afghanistan. Growing Up bin Laden, 173.                 insurgency, general says,” Associated Press, October 11, 2009,
64 Zaydan interview on Al-Jazeera Television.                    

65 Robert H. Reid, “Al-Qaida showing smaller presence in Afghanistan,”     n_insurgency__general_says.html
Associated Press, October 6, 2009,

New America Foundation –                                                                                     page 12
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