Although it is early in the investigation, the revelation that Faisal Shahzad, the 30-year-old arrested in connection with the failed car bombing in Times Square, is a naturalized U.S. citizen of Pakistani descent who recently traveled to Pakistan and says he received bomb-making training in Waziristan highlights the danger posed by the militant safe haven in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. Read Paul Cruickshank's recent New America Foundation study outlining the militant pipeline between the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and the West, excerpted here.
There are few eyewitness accounts available about the nature of al-Qaeda's safe haven in the FATA in 2009-10. The terrorist group appears to have come under increased pressure due to a record number of drone strikes during 2009. According to the New America Foundation count, there were 53 such strikes in 2009, killing at least 284 militants, nearly triple the number in 2008.[i] Also according to the New America Foundation research, around half a dozen of these were senior al-Qaeda operatives, half the figure of the previous year.[ii] The lower number of top al-Qaeda commanders being killed may be a result of the extra precautions taken by senior operatives within the group.
The drone strikes, while by most accounts very effective, appear to have provided the Pakistani Taliban with an additional recruiting tool. According to the New America Foundation study, at least 289 of those killed in drone strikes between 2004 and today -- one-third of the total -- were civilians.[iii] David Rohde, a New York Times reporter who was held hostage by the Taliban in the tribal areas during much of 2009 and has provided one of few recent eyewitness accounts, described the drones as a "terrifying presence." He wrote:
Remotely piloted, propeller-driven airplanes, they could easily be heard as they circled overhead for hours. To the naked eye, they were small dots in the sky. But their missiles had a range of several miles. We knew we could be immolated without warning.... The drones killed many senior commanders and hindered their operations. Yet the Taliban were able to garner recruits in their aftermath by exaggerating the number of civilian casualties. The strikes also created a paranoia among the Taliban. They believed that a network of local informants guided the missiles. Innocent civilians were rounded up, accused of working as American spies and then executed.[iv]
In August 2009, a Predator strike killed Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan, eliminating one of al-Qaeda's strongest protectors in the tribal areas and creating uncertainty in the ranks of the Pakistani Taliban. In the months that followed, however, his successor Hakimullah Mehsud established his authority and continued to give al-Qaeda full backing.[v] Hakimullah Mehsud appeared to have been killed by a drone strike against his compound in North Waziristan in January 2010; however, he recently appeared in two videos supposedly taped in April and is now believed to be alive.[vi]
A rare recent glimpse into conditions in the FATA came from an e-mail sent by David Headley, the Chicago-based alleged Lashkar-e-Taiba operative, to several associates in May 2009, shortly after he traveled to the area. Headley described how 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 Mujahideen.'" [vii]
David Rohde, the New York Times reporter taken hostage, wrote that he "found the tribal areas-widely perceived as impoverished and isolated-to have superior roads, electricity and infrastructure compared with what exists in much of Afghanistan." Rohde described both North and South Waziristan as a safe haven for foreign militants. When Rohde was taken by his captors to South Waziristan in March 2009, he observed that it "teemed with Uzbek, Arab, Afghan and Pakistani militants." [viii]
The pressure on al-Qaeda from drone strikes may have led the group to begin reevaluating the tribal areas as a safe haven. In the second half of 2009, U.S. intelligence officials began to see evidence that a small handful of al-Qaeda recruits were leaving the tribal areas for other jihadist fronts such as Yemen and Somalia.[ix]
In October 2009, Pakistan sent 30,000 ground troops into South Waziristan in an attempt to clear the area of pro-al-Qaeda militants. According to a senior U.S. counterterrorism official, the ongoing Pakistani military operation could be a game-changer, even though al-Qaeda has shown significant resilience in the tribal areas. "For the first time you have Pakistani boots on the ground and U.S. pinpoint strike capability," said the source, "and this may hurt al-Qaeda."[x] Pakistani military pressure may have led some al-Qaeda operatives to move across the border into Afghanistan in December.[xi] According to reports, the Pakistani military has seized most of the major militant strongholds in South Waziristan. However, the majority of Pakistani Taliban militants appear to have fled to other tribal agencies well before the troops arrived.[xii] U.S. intelligence agencies do not yet judge the Pakistani Taliban to have been defeated.[xiii]
While life may have been made more difficult for al-Qaeda in South Waziristan, the group will continue to enjoy a safe haven to the north unless the Pakistani military extends its campaign to North Waziristan. The area in and around Mir Ali, the second-largest town in the tribal agency, has arguably been ground zero for al-Qaeda terrorist plots in recent years. The airline plotters, the Danish recruit Hammad Khurshid, the German recruit Aleem Nasir, the Sauerland group, the Belgian-French group, and Bryant Neal Vinas all trained or spent time in that area. And new waves of Western recruits are traveling there. In August 2009, four Swedes were arrested trying to cross into North Waziristan.[xiv] New York Times journalist David Rohde underlined the extent to which the Haqqani network, a key al-Qaeda ally, was present in the area:
The Haqqanis oversaw a sprawling Taliban mini-state in the tribal areas with the de facto acquiescence of the Pakistani military.... Throughout North Waziristan, Taliban policemen patrolled the streets, and Taliban road crews carried out construction projects. The Haqqani network's commanders and foreign militants freely strolled the bazaars of Miram Shah and other towns. Young Afghan and Pakistani Taliban members revered the foreign fighters, who taught them how to make bombs.[xv]
Al-Qaeda has likely continued in recent months to adapt to the intensified drone strikes. The terrorist network may have increasingly taken its instruction on the road, training recruits from different militant groups such as JeM, the Pakistani Taliban, and Lashkar-e-Janghvi in temporary training camps set up by the groups, according to researchers at West Point's Combating Terrorism Center.[xvi] Al-Qaeda also appears to have adapted its propaganda operations. As-Sahab released nearly 100 tapes in 2007, but that number was halved in 2008, presumably because of the intensification in the drone campaign. As-Sahab's propaganda output was restored in 2009, however, suggesting it moved its media operations deeper into Pakistan.[xvii]
According to a U.S. counterterrorism official, Britain still has the most expansive jihadist facilitation network of any Western country. Militants on the European continent (with the exception of Germany) find it more difficult to make contact with al-Qaeda in the tribal areas. In the United States, there is very little in the way of an al-Qaeda facilitation network.[xviii]
The continued threat posed by al-Qaeda in the FATA was underlined by a January 2010 RTL interview in the tribal region with Adelbert Naaktgeboren, a militant claiming to be a Belgian al-Qaeda operative from the city of Ghent. Naaktgeboren, who spoke in English, claimed that he had been fighting U.S. troops in Afghanistan for five years and that he had traveled to the region after being exposed to the online sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemen-based American cleric. The militant stated he was currently leading a small band of al-Qaeda fighters on raids to attack NATO troops across the border in Afghanistan, but that he had other ambitions, too: "If God wills it we will fight you in your own countries: We will not stop till all your people are converted to Islam."[xix]
Paul Cruickshank, an alumni fellow at the NYU Center on Law and Security, is currently working on a CNN series on the U.S. domestic terrorism threat.
[i] Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, "The Year of the Drones," New America Foundation, February 2010. 284 represents the "low figure" from press reports.
[iv] David Rohde, "A Drone Strike and Dwindling Hope," New York Times, October 21, 2009.
[v] Mukhtar A. Khan, "A Profile of the TTP's New Leader: Hakimullah Mehsud," CTC Sentinel, 2:10 (2009).
[vi] Zahid Hussain, "CIA Drone Strike Hits Hakimullah Mehsud Compound," Times (London), January 14, 2010; Sajjad Tarakzai, "Pakistani Taliban leader threatens U.S. cities," Agence France Presse, May 3, 2010, http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20100503/wl_asia_afp/pakistanunresttalibanus.
[vii] Criminal Complaint - United States of America v. David C. Headley, United States District Court, Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, October 11, 2009.
[viii] Rohde, "A Drone Strike and Dwindling Hope."
[ix] Eric Schmitt and David E. Sanger, "Some in Qaeda Leave Pakistan for Somalia and Yemen," New York Times, June 11, 2009.
[x] Personal interview with senior U.S. counterterrorism official, Washington, DC, October 2009.
[xi] Personal interview by telephone with former jihadist, December 2009. The source had contacts in the region who in turn had ties to militants in the tribal areas.
[xii] Rahimullah Yusufzai, "Assessing the Progress of Pakistan's South Waziristan Offensive," CTC Sentinel, 2:12 (2009).
[xiii] Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair, "Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community" for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, February 2, 2010.
[xiv] Whitlock, "Flow of Terrorist Recruits Increasing."
[xv] David Rohde, "You Have Atomic Bombs, but We Have Suicide Bombers," New York Times, October 20, 2009.
[xvi] Lolita C. Baldor, "Terror Training Camps Smaller, Harder to Target," Associated Press, November 9, 2009.
[xvii] See Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, "The Drone War," New Republic, June 3, 2009.
[xviii] Personal interview with senior U.S. counterterrorism official, New York, September 2009.
[xix] Melanie Bois, "Recontre avec un Belge d'Al Qaida: il nous menace," RTL, January 18, 2010. An LeT fighter brought the journalist to the al-Qaeda fighter, underlining the close ties between the groups in the tribal areas.
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