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Setbacks weaken Al Qaeda's ability to mount attacks, terrorism officials say

Al Qaeda and its allies remain a threat, particularly because of an increasing ability to attract recruits from Central Asia and Turkey to offset the diminishing number of Arab and Western militants.

October 17, 2009|Sebastian Rotella

WASHINGTON — As Al Qaeda is weakened by the loss of leaders, fighters, funds and ideological appeal, the extremist network's ability to attack targets in the United States and Western Europe has diminished, anti-terrorism officials say.

Nonetheless, Al Qaeda and allied groups based primarily in Pakistan remain a threat, particularly because of an increasing ability to attract recruits from Central Asia and Turkey to offset the decline in the number of militants from the Arab world and the West.

Al Qaeda's relative strength these days is of crucial importance in the complex debate in Washington over future U.S. troop levels and tactics in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Although factions within the Obama administration differ on how best to deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan, all agree that the paramount priority is defeating Al Qaeda. Unlike the Afghan Taliban, the terrorist network Al Qaeda remains committed to a holy war against the West with a goal of matching or surpassing its devastating attacks in 2001.

Western intelligence officials say that the group, already under pressure from U.S. drone strikes and facing a likely Pakistani army assault on its sanctuary, has been further racked by internal division and rifts with tribal groups.

"Some pretty experienced individuals have been taken out of the equation," a senior British anti-terrorism official said in a recent interview.

"There is fear, insecurity and paranoia about individuals arriving from outside, worries about spies and infiltration," said the official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive topic. "There is a sense that it has become a less romantic experience. Which is important because of the impact on Al Qaeda the brand, the myth, the idea of the glorious jihadist."

Al Qaeda last spilled blood in the West in July 2005 when bombing attacks on the London transportation system killed 52 people. Global cooperation and aggressive infiltration by Western spy services have thwarted subsequent plots, and a stepped-up campaign of drone strikes has killed many Al Qaeda leaders and intensified divisions among extremist groups.

"There are tensions about AQ as an entity," the British official said. "It has embedded itself in [northwestern Pakistan] over the course of years with marriages, links to tribes. The drone strikes appear to be straining those bonds with the locals."

Some Arabs and Westerners still trek to the training compounds of Waziristan, though the numbers have shrunk as intelligence services get better at tracking and capturing trainees. British militants thought to have trained in Pakistan during the last year and a half number in the tens, not the hundreds, the official said.

French authorities say only small numbers of militants from France are going to Pakistan. Italian anti-terrorism officials have not detected any recruits from their country traveling to Pakistan since 2005 or '06, said Armando Spataro, a top terrorism prosecutor in Milan.

The dwindling supply of foreign recruits results partly from an ideological backlash in the Muslim world, experts say.

President Obama cited the debilitated condition of the terrorist network last week during a visit with U.S. counter-terrorism officials.

"Because of our efforts, Al Qaeda and its allies have not only lost operational capacity, they've lost legitimacy and credibility," he said.

The number of failed plots in the West, whether directed or inspired by Al Qaeda, also shows that the quality of operatives has declined, scholar Marc Sageman testified at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week.

"Counter-terrorism is working," said Sageman, a former CIA officer and New York Police Department expert. "Terrorist organizations can no longer cherry-pick the best candidates as they did in the 1990s. There is no Al Qaeda recruitment program: Al Qaeda and its allies are totally dependent on self-selected volunteers."

In several recent cases, Western trainees in Pakistan allegedly had contact with Mustafa Abu Yazid, also known as Said Sheik, a longtime Egyptian financial boss. Abu Yazid acts as the day-to-day chief of the network while Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, spend their time eluding capture, said the British official.

The training and direction of Westerners had largely been coordinated by one individual: Rashid Rauf, a Pakistani Briton who died in a missile strike in November. Investigators believe Rauf was the handler of British operatives in plots dating back to a failed 2004 bombing in London.

A French trainee who confessed this year detailed to French police the relatively small size of the network. Walid Othmani, who is of Tunisian descent, said he trained in the Waziristan region with a mostly Arab contingent of 300 to 500 fighters, according to a French police report provided by a defense lawyer.

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