Al-Qaida strength growing, U.S. says

Bin Laden regained world network, built camps in Pakistan

February 19, 2007|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON --Senior leaders of al-Qaida operating from Pakistan have re-established significant control over their once battered worldwide terror network and over the past year have set up a band of training camps in the tribal regions near the Afghan border, according to U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials.

U.S. officials said there is mounting evidence that Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, have been steadily building an operations hub in Pakistan's mountainous tribal area of North Waziristan. Until recently, the Bush administration had described bin Laden and al-Zawahri as detached from their followers and cut off from operational control of al-Qaida.

The new warnings are different from those made in recent months by intelligence officials and counterterrorism experts, who have spoken about the growing abilities of Taliban forces and Pakistani militants to launch attacks into Afghanistan. U.S. officials say that the new intelligence is focused on al-Qaida and point to the prospect that the terrorist network is gaining in strength despite more than five years of a sustained U.S.-led campaign to weaken it.

The United States has identified several new al-Qaida compounds in North Waziristan, including one that officials said might be training operatives for strikes against targets beyond Afghanistan.

U.S. analysts said recent intelligence shows that the compounds functioned under a loose command structure and were operated by groups of Arab, Pakistani and Afghan militants allied with al-Qaida. They receive guidance from their commanders and al-Zawahri, the analysts said. Bin Laden, who has long played less of an operational role, appears to have little direct involvement.

Officials said the training camps have yet to reach the size and level of sophistication of the al-Qaida camps established in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. But groups of 10 to 20 men are being trained at the camps, the officials said, and the al-Qaida infrastructure in the region is gradually maturing.

The intelligence and counterterrorism officials would discuss the classified information only on condition of anonymity. They refused to provide some of the evidence that led them to their assessments, saying that revealing the information would disclose too much about the sources and methods of intelligence collection.

The concern about a resurgent al-Qaida has been the subject of intensive discussion at high levels of the Bush administration, the officials said, and has reignited debate about how to address Pakistan's role as a haven for militants without undermining the government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the country's president.

Last week, President Bush's senior counterterrorism adviser, Frances Fragos Townsend, went to Afghanistan during a Middle East trip to meet with security officials about rising concerns on al-Qaida's resurgence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, an administration official said.

Officials from several U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism agencies presented a consistent picture in describing the latest developments as a major setback to U.S. efforts against al-Qaida.

As recently as 2005, U.S. intelligence assessments described senior leaders of al-Qaida as cut off from their foot soldiers and able only to provide inspiration for future attacks. But more recent intelligence describes the organization's hierarchy as intact and strengthening.

"The chain of command has been re-established," said one U.S. government official, who said al-Qaida's "leadership command and control is robust."

U.S. officials and analysts said a variety of factors in Pakistan had come together to allow "core al-Qaida" - a reference to bin Laden and his immediate circle - to regain some of their strength. The emergence of a relative haven in North Waziristan and the surrounding area has helped senior operatives communicate more effectively with the outside world via courier and the Internet.

The investigation into last summer's failed plot to bomb airliners in London has led counterterrorism officials to what they say are "clear linkages" between the plotters and core al-Qaida operatives in Pakistan. U.S. analysts say the trials of suspected terrorists in Britain revealed that some of the defendants had gone to Pakistan for training.

Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, told the House Armed Services Committee last week that al-Qaida "is on the march."

"Al-Qaida in fact is now functioning exactly as its founder and leader, Osama bin Laden, envisioned it," because, he said, al-Qaida leaders are planning major attacks and inspiring militants to carry out attacks around the globe.

Other experts questioned the seriousness of Pakistan's commitment. They said elements of Pakistan's military still support the Taliban and see them as a valuable proxy to counter the rising influence of India, Pakistan's regional rival.

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