Thursday, July 12, 2007

A Resurgent Al Qaida?

The mainstream press is abuzz over a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which concludes that Al Qaida has "reconstituted" its core structure along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and "may be a stronger and more resilient structure than it appeared a year ago."

According to this Newsweek account, the intelligence estimate is still in draft form, but that hasn't prevented the leakers from discussing it with their friends in the press. Reporters Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball found no less than three intelligence officials who were willing to talk about it (under the condition of anonymity, of course). Never mind that the new estimate hasn't been "finalized," or briefed to Congress. In the race to eclipse President Bush's war strategy, anything is fair game, including an NIE that can be "spun" to show that military operations in Iraq have made the problem worse.

But the primary reason for Al Qaida's resurgence is buried (typically) on page three of the article. And--surprise, surprise--it has nothing to do with the War in Iraq, or domestic security measures in the United States. As the draft assessment indicates, Al Qaida's reconstitution along the Pakistan-Afghan border is a direct result of the disastrous "Waziristan Accords," signed last year between the Islamabad government and pro-Al Qaida groups in the western tribal lands. Implementation of those agreements further eroded Pakistani authority in the region, and allowed terrorists to rebuild the training, support and administrative infrastructure that once existed in neighboring Afghanistan.

Bill Roggio was almost alone in reporting the dire consequences of those agreements, and we've echoed those sentiments in this blog. A few months ago, Mr. Roggio described the situation in Pakistan as a "civil war at the peripheries" and we can't disagree with his assessment. By attempting to "negotiate" with terrorists, the Musharraf government only emboldened them, allowing Al Qaida and its Taliban allies to reestablish operating bases, and extend their influence beyond the tribal areas. In that permissive environment, it would be shocking if Al Qaida didn't re-establish itself in the border region. In fact, as Mr. Roggion reminds us, Osama bin Laden himself vowed that his group--and the Taliban--would reestablish their base in the border region in the winter of 2005-2006, months before the first accord was signed.

As more proof of a resurgent Al Qaida, Newsweek also highlights concerns from German authorities, who are tracking a number of suspected insurgents within their borders. Unidentified German officials tell the magazine that a number possible jihadists are now being tracked by the nation's security and intelligence services. Readers will also note that the Germans are quick to blame the United States for their rising terrorism threat, claiming that many of the suspects are Iraqis who were "educated" by terrorist groups in that country.

Not surprisingly, the officials make no mention of Germany's (relatively) liberal asylum laws, large Muslim community and uneven counter-terrorism efforts. Lest we forget, much of the planning for 9-11 was conducted by Al Qaida's infamous "Hamburg" Cell, led by Mohammed Atta, which operated for more than a year under the noses of German authorities. Flash forward six years, and the Germans have plenty of reasons to be concerned. But any terror attack on their soil will be the result of many factors--including domestic policies on surveillance and immigration--and not merely a by-product of the War in Iraq.

As further proof of the gathering storm, Isikoff and Hosenball depict an Al Qaida that has achieved critical mass, with a revitalized central leadership, and active affiliates that are gaining influence in North Africa and other parts of the Middle East. Their sources also note Al Qaida's "robust" public affairs campaign (which now averages one audio, internet or video message a week), an increased chatter about new plots against the United States, emanating from the group's operational bases along the Afghan-Pakistan border.

We haven't read the NIE, so there's no way of knowing if the "Al Qaida on the march" comments are tempered by discussions of the group's significant failures in recent months. The recent U.K. plot--assuming that it was linked to Al Qaida's Iraq affiliate, as some have suggested--was a flop. Earlier this year, the Ethiopian Army, backed by U.S. special forces and airpower, crushed efforts by an Al Qaida affiliate to take control in Somalia. In Afghanistan, the Taliban's widely-touted spring offensive also failed badly, despite the availability of new bases and training centers in Waziristan. And finally, the most recent propaganda messages from the group's #2 leader, Ayman al-Zawihiri, sound anything but optimistic. One reason for the change in tone was Al Qaida's recent loss of key "allies" in Iraq, and its long-time safe haven in Al-Anbar Province.

On the balance, Al Qaida probably is stronger today than it was a year ago. But even leaked portions of the NIE note that the primary reason for the resurgence (the Waziristan accords) is beyond U.S. control. It would also be interesting to learn if the NIE acknowledges the "positive" impact of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on the terrorist movement. In one of his recent tapes, Zawihiri against identified Iraq as the "central front" in the war against the west, affirming that Al Qaida will continue that fight, and devote the necessary resources.

You won't find this in the Newsweek column, but a U.S. retreat from Iraq would place Al Qaida in an even stronger position, allowing the terror group to shift assets toward new targets outside the Middle East. If the U.S. leaves Iraq over the next year--as many in Washington are suggesting--Al Qaida would become ascendant, not just resurgent, posing an even greater threat across the region, in Europe, and here at home.

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