Intelligence agencies see worrying signs of al-Qaeda’s revival

Polar Bear

They call me Mr Sunshine
Verified Military
Aug 14, 2006

On the march

Jan 18th 2007
From The Economist print edition
Intelligence agencies see worrying signs of al-Qaeda’s revival

AS THEY watch Iraq spiralling into civil war and Taliban attacks in Afghanistan increasing, Western leaders have until recently consoled themselves with one thought: at least the campaign against al-Qaeda has gone quite well. “Absolutely, we’re winning. Al-Qaeda is on the run,” said President George Bush in October.
After the West toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, in 2001, and arrested or killed many of al-Qaeda’s leaders, officials believed it was largely broken up. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, his deputy, sent video and audio messages from their hiding places, but did not appear to control operations, which were “franchised” to local groups. In Europe, the jihadist cause was taken up by home-grown extremists. But their outrages, such as the London bombings on July 7th 2005, could not match al-Qaeda’s spectaculars.

Such was the received wisdom. But in his annual threat assessment this month, John Negroponte, America’s outgoing intelligence chief, changed his tone. Al-Qaeda’s core leadership was “resilient”. Its hiding places in Pakistan were “secure” and it was “cultivating stronger operational connections and relationships” with affiliated groups across the Middle East, north Africa and Europe.
That sombre view matches the alarm of British intelligence chiefs. In November, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of the security agency, MI5, said her overstretched spooks were contending with some 200 terrorist networks involving about 1,600 suspects, and investigating up to 30 high-priority plots. Home-grown radicals were “foot-soldiers” trained and guided by al-Qaeda on an “extensive and growing scale”.
A series of investigations and court cases in Britain has cast light on the enduring role of al-Qaeda in attacks on the West, especially from Pakistan. In November Dhiren Barot, a Hindu convert to Islam, received a 40-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to planning several possible attacks. Mr Barot had planned to use a radioactive “dirty bomb” and blow up limousines filled with gas cylinders in London, among other schemes.
Intelligence agencies at first thought that the July 7th bombings had been home-grown. But investigators later found that the bombers’ leader, Mohammed Siddique Khan, had travelled to Pakistan beforehand. In London this week, a court heard of a similar link in a second (failed) plot to bomb London’s transport system two weeks later. The bombers’ alleged leader, Ethiopian-born Muktar Ibrahim, had gone to Pakistan several months before the attacks and is said to have attended a training camp in Sudan.
This was not a “copycat” attack, but long planned, prosecutors said. It failed because, apparently, the bombers botched the kitchen-stove preparation of the ingredients.
If this sounds too amateurish for al-Qaeda, then last August’s alleged plot to blow up ten airliners flying from London to America by using liquid explosives, had all the hallmarks of an al-Qaeda spectacular. Investigators say that it, too, involves close links to extremists in Pakistan.
Western security officials say the revitalisation of al-Qaeda is partly due to the fact that “the pressure is off” in North Waziristan, a Pakistani tribal region where the army agreed a ceasefire with militants last September. Afghan and NATO commanders complain that the truce has also provided cross-border safe havens for the Taliban. Mr Negroponte called Pakistan an important ally, but also “a major source of Islamic extremism”.
Western officials also worry about what they call “blowback” from Iraq: instead of sucking in would-be suicide bombers on one-way tickets, it could pump out battle-hardened fighters to wage violent campaigns elsewhere. Mr Negroponte said an American pull-out would allow Iraq to replace Afghanistan as an al-Qaeda sanctuary.
In recent weeks al-Qaeda and its sympathisers have taken a beating in Somalia, where the American-backed Ethiopians have routed the local Islamists. But al-Qaeda may be growing stronger in north Africa. Last September’s announcement of a merger of al-Qaeda and Algeria’s Salafist Group for Call and Combat (better known by its French acronym GSPC) may herald an attempt to open up a new front against Europe through its large population of Maghrebi immigrants.
The GSPC has dwindled to a few hundred fighters. But alleged members have been arrested across Europe. Last month it claimed responsibility for a bomb that killed the driver of a bus carrying workers for an affiliate of Halliburton, an American energy-services giant. “Al-Qaeda is not on the run,” says Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University. “It is on the march.”