The South Asia Channel

Al Qaeda's Ground Zero

The Pakistani military has announced it will clear pro-al Qaeda militants from North Waziristan by June. Time will tell whether it is prepared to take the decisive action necessary to tackle the world's most dangerous terrorist safe haven.

The Pakistani major general in charge of ground operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) stated Thursday that the Pakistani Army had already commenced small operations against pro-al Qaeda militants in North Waziristan and that the tribal agency would be cleared of militants by June. But while this will be welcome news in Western capitals, only time will tell whether the Pakistani Army is truly prepared to take the decisive action necessary to deliver on their promise.

Some of signals coming out of Islamabad have not been encouraging. Even though the mountainous North Waziristan has emerged as an even safer haven for pro-al Qaeda militants in recent years than South Waziristan, Pakistani officials have indicated that they will not conduct large-scale operations there of the type conducted in South Waziristan last fall.

When it comes to the fight against al Qaeda no question is of greater importance than whether or not Pakistan acts decisively against terrorist safe havens in North Waziristan. As I outlined in a recent New America Foundation study in the past several years North Waziristan has emerged as ground zero for al Qaeda plots against the West. Underlining the threat from al Qaeda's safe haven in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, the study found that in a majority of the serious Islamist terrorist plots against the West between 2004 and 2009 plotters were either directed or trained by established jihadist groups in Pakistan.

Any obituaries written about the operations of "core" al Qaeda in Pakistan are premature. Al Qaeda retains the capability to orchestrate plots against the West from North Waziristan. The interrogation reports, trial testimony, and statements of Western recruits who traveled to train in the tribal areas of Pakistan as recently as 2008 suggest that al Qaeda has to a significant degree successfully adapted its organizational structures in the wake of a greatly intensified drone campaign. It has done this by spreading its fighters around the tribal areas, lodging them in small groups in mountain shacks, and mandating that training take place mostly indoors. This has allowed al Qaeda to continue to offer recruits from the West sophisticated bomb-making instruction. Najibullah Zazi, for instance was instructed in how to make hydrogen peroxide-TATP devices by al Qaeda instructors in the FATA in the fall of 2008. Zazi recently pleaded guilty to plotting to attack New York subways in September 2009.

Although there are few eyewitness accounts about the status of al Qaeda's safe haven in the 2009 to 2010 period, al Qaeda bomb-makers are likely still operating in the area. According to a New America Foundation count only a half-dozen al Qaeda operatives were killed by drone strikes in the tribal areas in 2009, half the number of the previous year, suggesting that al Qaeda operatives may have become better at avoiding the unmanned aircraft.

Despite the fact that recent weeks have seen a surge in the number of drone strikes in North Waziristan, increasing the pressure on al-Qaeda and its allies and making it more difficult for the terrorist groups to plot attacks in the West, missile strikes alone will never force them out of North Waziristan.

In recent years the area in and around Mir Ali in particular, the second largest town in North Waziristan, has emerged as an epicenter for Western militants training in Pakistan. For example, the 2006 airline plotters, the Danish al Qaeda recruit Hammad Khurshid, the German al Qaeda recruit Aleem Nasir, a group of German plotters who targeted U.S. servicemen in Germany in 2007, a group of Belgian militants now on trial in Belgium, and the American al Qaeda recruit Bryant Neal Vinas, all trained or spent time in the area. And new waves of Western recruits are traveling to North Waziristan. In August 2009, four Swedes were arrested trying to cross into North Waziristan. In total up to 150 militants from the West are thought to have travelled to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region in 2009, a greater number than in previous years.

A rare recent glimpse into conditions in North Waziristan came from an e-mail sent by David Headley, the Chicago-based Lashkar-e-Taiba operative, to several associates in May 2009, shortly after he traveled to the area. Headley described how, despite the intensification of drone strikes, the local tribes in North Waziristan were still offering sanctuary to foreign fighters and their families, who he said made up a little less than a third of the population in the area. "Just walk around the bazaar in Miranshah [Miram Shah, the capital of North Waziristan]. This bazaar is bustling with Chechens, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Russians, Bosnians, some from EU countries and of course our Arab brothers," he wrote. "Any Waziri or Mehsud I spoke to seemed grateful to God for the privilege of being able to host the ‘Foreign Mujahedeen.'"

Accounts such as these suggest that it will take more than "small operations" by Pakistani army to change realities on the ground in North Waziristan. Only a multi-pronged counterinsurgency campaign against militants who refuse to stop supporting al Qaeda and a substantial economic development effort can make the difference. Given the surge of attacks on Pakistani cities in recent years, the stakes are higher even for Pakistan than the West.

Clearing militants from the area will involve painful choices for the Pakistani military. The Haqqanis, an Afghan militant network which helps to protect al Qaeda and other foreign jihadist groups in North Waziristan, have long been clients of Pakistan's intelligence services, who see them as crucial in helping Pakistan influence outcomes on the other side of the Durand line. To a large extent the success or failure of the Pakistani drive to rid North Waziristan of pro-al Qaeda militants will depend on whether they are willing and able to persuade the Haqqani network to stop providing sanctuary to al Qaeda.

Any continued vacillation over North Waziristan will be dangerous both to Pakistan and to its allies in the West. The arrest last Friday of Raja Lahrasib Khan, an American of Pakistani descent, after he allegedly spoke to undercover FBI agents about bombing stadiums in the United States, is yet another reminder of the threat posed by Westerners traveling to North Waziristan. Khan was able to travel freely around North Waziristan during the course of 2008 to meet with al Qaeda-linked operatives. Khan has been charged with providing material support to al Qaeda.

In the summer of 2006 al Qaeda operatives in North Waziristan orchestrated a plot to bomb at least seven transatlantic airliners using British operatives they had trained in the area. Unfortunately al Qaeda militants in the area still have the opportunity to plot attacks of similar ambition. A great deal rides on what happens next in North Waziristan.

Paul Cruickshank, an Alumni Fellow at the NYU Center on Law & Security is working on a CNN investigative series into the U.S. domestic terrorist threat.

John Moore/Getty Images