The Militant Pipeline

Policy Paper
July 6, 2011

A decade after 9/11, despite growing concerns over Yemen, Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and swaths of the country’s northwest arguably remain al Qaeda ’s main safe haven, and the area from which it can hatch its most dangerous plots against the West.[i] Al Qaeda’s presence in these areas has long threatened international security. It was in Peshawar in Pakistan’s northwest that al Qaeda was founded in 1988, and ever since Pakistan’s border region with Afghanistan has been a gateway for recruits joining the terrorist network and its affiliates, and an area in which its senior figures have felt comfortable planning operations, including the 9/11 attacks. After being driven out of Afghanistan, it was on the Pakistani side of the border that al Qaeda built up a new safe haven.[ii] And while bin Laden went to ground in Abbottabad in the settled areas of Pakistan some 70 miles north of Islamabad where he was killed on May 2, 2011, many of his key lieutenants remain in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

Recent years have seen increased numbers of Westerners travelling to the region for paramilitary training, with 100 to 150 suspected of making the trip in 2009 and reports of recruits continuing to stream in during 2010 and 2011, according to Western counterterrorism officials.[iii] While many went there because the area is the principal point of entry to join the fighting in Afghanistan, the presence of al Qaeda, and its sustained ability to train recruits and persuade them to launch attacks in the West, continue to make the FATA what President Obama called in 2009 “the most dangerous place in the world.”[iv]

U.S. officials have recently suggested that when it comes to the U.S. homeland, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen – al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – could now pose a greater threat than “al Qaeda Central” in the tribal areas of Pakistan. In February 2011, Michael Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) testified,“Al Qaeda, we believe, in Pakistan is at one of its weakest points in the past decade, and it is continuously forcing -- being forced to react to a reduced safe haven and personnel losses, but it remains a very determined enemy,” and added, “I actually consider al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, with Awlaki as a leader within that organization, probably the most significant risk to the U.S. homeland. I'm hesitant to rank them too carefully."[v]

According to a senior U.S. counterterrorism official, while it can be debated whether the Yemeni or Pakistani branch of al Qaeda poses the greatest threat, the terrorist safe haven in Pakistan remains the more dangerous to the United States as well as other Western countries. While only one terrorist group in Yemen threatens the United States, several groups are now operating in the tribal areas of Pakistan with a track record of targeting the U.S. homeland.[vi]

This paper’s findings put the relative threat from al Qaeda safe havens in Pakistan and Yemen to the West in some historical context. In a survey below of the 32 “serious” jihadist terrorist plots against the West between 2004 and 2011, 53 percent had operational or training links to established jihadist groups in Pakistan and just 6 percent to Yemen.

This paper will illustrate how an intensification in the CIA drone campaign and Pakistani military operations in Pakistan’s tribal areas have reduced al Qaeda’s ability to operate in the area, but by no means removed it, as the terrorist network has shown a significant ability to adapt its operations to the threat from the missile strikes.

In recent years, despite the intensification of drone strikes in Pakistan, this paper finds that Pakistan has continued to incubate more serious terrorist plots than Yemen. Between January 2009 and June 2011 there were seven serious plots against the West in which plotters were trained or directed by jihadist terrorist groups in Pakistan and just two linked in this way to Yemen. Both those plots – the Christmas Day 2009 attempt to bomb an airliner approaching Detroit and the October 2010 “package bomb plot” against cargo planes – were directed against the United States, which was also targeted by an equal number of serious plots linked to Pakistan during this period – the September 2009 plot by Najibullah Zazi to bomb New York and the May 2010 attempt to bomb Times Square.

These metrics do not yet bear out Obama administration claims that the terrorist threat from Pakistan’s tribal areas has been reduced. In 2010 there were four serious plots against the West with an operational or training link to Pakistan, the most in any year since al Qaeda began to consolidate a safe haven in the tribal areas of Pakistan in 2004. Two of these plots saw plotters train in Pakistan a year before activating plots against the West (the July 2010 plot by Norwegian militants and the August 2010 Canada plot), while two saw militants train in Pakistan the same year (the May 2010 Times Square plot and the December 2010 plot to attack a newspaper in Denmark).

If al Qaeda and its allies have now been weakened in the tribal areas, fewer plots should be expected in 2011 and 2012, as there tends to be a lag between militants training in Pakistan and plots being launched. This will be the truest test of Obama administration’s claims.

This paper extends the research of a previous iteration of this paper, published in February 2010, which outlined five case studies of Western militants traveling to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region for training between 2003 and 2008. The five case studies, which were chosen because the most open source information was available on them, charted the emergence of the FATA and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (formerly known as the North West Frontier Province, or NWFP) as a terrorist safe haven.

·    The U.K. fertilizer (“Crevice”) bomb plotters (training sponsored by al Qaeda in the NWFP 2003)

·    The U.K. airline plotters (trained by al Qaeda in FATA 2005-06)

·    The German “Sauerland” group (trained by the Islamic Jihad Union in FATA in 2006)

·    The Danish recruit Hammad Khurshid (trained by al Qaeda in FATA in 2007)

·    Bryant Neal Vinas and the Belgian-French group (trained by al Qaeda in FATA in 2008

This edition includes five new case studies of Western militants who trained in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region between 2008 and 2010.

·    Najibullah Zazi’s New York group (trained by al Qaeda in FATA in fall 2008)

·    The Manchester Plotters (trained by al Qaeda in FATA in fall 2008)

·    The alleged Norway Cell (trained by al Qaeda in FATA in winter 2008-2009)

·    Failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad (trained by the Pakistani Taliban in FATA during winter 2009-10)

·    The 2010 Hamburg cell (trained by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and al Qaeda in FATA in 2009-10)

Drawing on interrogation reports, courtroom testimony, confessions, and statements of these Western recruits – as well as interviews with family members and attorneys of the recruits and Western officials with knowledge of their cases - this paper will describe the new realities of al Qaeda’s mountainous sanctuary from the perspective of the Western militants who travelled there. Their rare eyewitness accounts—in large part viewed as credible by Western intelligence agencies—shed light on how al Qaeda’s capabilities have been affected by drone strikes, the sorts of training camps it now runs, how its relations with other jihadist groups have deepened, how it has continued to attract Western recruits and persuade them to launch attacks in the West, and the degree to which it can now control such operations from its mountain base. The paper will also examine the degree to which Westerners are joining militant groups allied with al Qaeda in the FATA and bordering areas of the NWFP.

To read the rest of this policy paper, click here.

Paul Cruickshank is an investigative reporter specializing in al Qaeda, a CNN terrorism analyst, and an alumni fellow at the NYU Center on Law and Security.

[i]See for example British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, “Statement on Security and Counterterrorism,” House of Commons, January 20, 2010.

[ii]Bin Laden’s terrorist network has had a significant presence in Pakistan ever since its founding in Peshawar in 1988. Western militants transited through Pakistan to reach Afghanistan, including those who carried out the September 11, 2001 attacks. Mohammed Atta and two other Hamburg militants who piloted hijacked planes on 9/11 were recruited by Al Qaeda in Afghanistan after connecting with pro Al Qaeda militants in the Pakistani border town of Quetta in late 1999. Dozens of other Western militants joined Al Qaeda in the 1990s after spending time in guest houses in Peshawar. Furthermore, the 9/11 plot itself was partly coordinated from Pakistan, where Hamburg resident Ramzi Binalshibh and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed spent stretches of time in the lead up to the attack, including in Quetta. See The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon The United States, p. 160-9 224-225

[iii]Craig Whitlock, “Flow of Terrorist Recruits Increasing,” Washington Post, October 19, 2009; Lolita C. Baldor, “Terror Training Camps Are Smaller, Harder to Target,” Associated Press, November 9, 2009. According to a senior U.S. counterterrorism official interviewed by the author in March 2011 while fewer American militants appear to have travelled to Pakistan in 2010 and early 2011, European counterterrorism officials have not indicated that travel flows have slowed from Europe during this period. U.S. and European counterterrorism officials interviewed by the author in early 2011 said it was very difficult to quantify the number of Western militants traveling to the region each year. A Belgian official told the author that Western intelligence agencies have now established that more recruits traveled to Afghanistan in the 1990s than was realized at the time and he expected the same would apply for militants traveling to Pakistan in recent years. Personal Interview with Belgian counterterrorism official, Brussels, January 2011. British counterterrorism officials have always found it very difficult to gauge the volume of travel to the camps because once individuals arrive in Pakistan it is virtually impossible to track their movements and distinguish them from other travellers to Pakistan. Some militants have also disguised their travel routes to Pakistan, travelling by very circuitous routes to avoid their passports being stamped. Personal Communication with Senior British counterterrorism Source, November 2009.

[iv]White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Prepared Remarks of President Barack Obama: A New Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan,” March 27, 2009.

[v]Michael Leiter, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), Testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee, February 9, 2011. In December 2010 White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan stated that Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen was “now the most operationally active node of the al Qaeda network. Larry Shaughnessy, “US Official: Al Qaeda in Yemen Greater Threat than in Pakistan,” CNN, December 18, 2010.

[vi]Personal Interview with Senior U.S. counterterrorism Official, March 2011