WASHINGTON — Hundreds of Al Qaeda terrorist operatives are hiding in Pakistan's cities after forming or renewing alliances with local Muslim extremist networks that have helped provide safe houses for communications, training and logistics, U.S. officials say.
The result, they fear, is that America's closest ally in Central Asia has in effect replaced Afghanistan as a command-and-control center for at least some of the battered remnants of Osama bin Laden's terrorist army.
"They don't operate with impunity there like they did in Afghanistan," a U.S. intelligence official said. "But they have lots of supporters, and it's easy for them to blend in."
A Justice Department official agreed, saying Al Qaeda members appear to have gone "wherever they want" in Pakistan's teeming cities.
"They're hiding in plain sight," he said.
Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp. think tank in Santa Monica, says Bin Laden might have viewed Pakistan as part of a "business continuity plan to ensure survival of leadership, financing, communications and so on" in case Al Qaeda lost its sanctuary in Afghanistan.
Authorities say that Al Qaeda has made similar efforts to regroup by merging with local Muslim extremist groups in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. These makeshift alliances are more decentralized than the network long directed by Bin Laden, officials say, and thus might be more difficult for outsiders to penetrate.
Since last fall, the United States and its allies say they have foiled more than a dozen terrorist plots around the world and arrested more than 2,400 suspects in nearly 90 countries.
But more than half of Al Qaeda's known leaders remain at large, including several linked to the Sept. 11 assaults and other major attacks. Officials are especially eager to catch Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, an Al Qaeda operative linked to almost every attack against the United States since the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.
U.S. intelligence analysts still believe that Bin Laden and his top aides have found refuge somewhere along Pakistan's long and lawless border with Afghanistan. Broad pockets of local sympathizers are said to exist in the semiautonomous tribal areas of Baluchistan and North-West Frontier Province.
But U.S. and Pakistani officials now estimate that hundreds more Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters who fled the war in Afghanistan have disappeared into Pakistan. Many are thought to have linked up with like-minded local groups opposed to secular Muslim regimes and to the Western powers that support them.
Backers Mount Attacks
Al Qaeda supporters appear to have been responsible for at least two suicide attacks on Westerners in Pakistani cities this year, U.S. officials say. Al Qaeda leaders and followers have been arrested or tracked in nearly every major Pakistani city, including Karachi in the south, Lahore and Faisalabad in the east, Peshawar in the west, and Rawalpindi and Islamabad, the capital, in the north.
In some cases, U.S. officials say, Pakistani militants and even some members of the government's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, known as the ISI, have openly supported Al Qaeda and have used an informal underground railroad to help fleeing terrorists.
"The ISI is filled with extremists, and I don't think they're trying very hard to find these people," said a recently retired U.S. counter-terrorism official who is familiar with the manhunt. "In fact, they're actively trying to hide them."
Another U.S. official downplayed ISI's role, citing recent intelligence reports. But "that doesn't rule out the possibility that there are still links between rogue elements of ISI and Al Qaeda," he said.
Al Qaeda's presence in Pakistan poses a growing danger and dilemma for both Washington and Islamabad.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who visited Pakistan last week, and other U.S. officials have offered strong public support for President Pervez Musharraf's military regime, which has provided airstrips, bases, fuel, intelligence and other critical help to U.S. forces.
Privately, however, many U.S. officials are increasingly voicing concerns that Musharraf's crackdown on local terrorist groups this year has largely failed. Several banned groups have morphed or spawned virulent offshoots that have launched several attacks against Westerners this year. Authorities haven't solved Friday's car bombing outside the U.S. Consulate in Karachi, which killed at least 11 Pakistanis and wounded dozens more. A previously unknown group has claimed responsibility, but U.S. officials said the FBI is investigating whether Al Qaeda might be linked to the attack.
U.S. intelligence officials now suspect that groups linked to Al Qaeda were responsible for a May 8 bus bombing in Karachi that killed 11 French engineers and a March 17 grenade attack in Islamabad that killed four Protestant International Church congregants, including a U.S. Embassy employee and her daughter.