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Monday, February 19, 2007

N.Y. Times: Al-Qaeda Gaining Strength in Pakistan, Waziristan Accord Has Failed

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

A report in today's New York Times discusses American intelligence and counterterrorism officials' view that al-Qaeda's senior leadership has "re-established significant control" over the worldwide terror network. Their operations hub is located in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal area:

"American officials said there was mounting evidence that Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had been steadily building an operations hub in the mountainous Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan. Until recently, the Bush administration had described Mr. bin Laden and Mr. Zawahiri as detached from their followers and cut off from operational control of Al Qaeda. The United States has also identified several new Qaeda compounds in North Waziristan, including one that officials said might be training operatives for strikes against targets beyond Afghanistan. . . . Officials said the training camps had yet to reach the size and level of sophistication of the Qaeda 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 Qaeda infrastructure in the region is gradually becoming more mature."

Several factors have allowed al-Qaeda's core leadership to regain its strength, including "[t]he emergence of a relative haven in North Waziristan and the surrounding area." To that extent, the Times reports that officials in Washington and Islamabad are conceding that the Waziristan Accord -- which was signed on September 5, and was designed as a treaty between Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf and tribal leaders -- "had been a failure." This should come as no shock. In the October 2 issue of the Weekly Standard, less than a month after the Waziristan Accord was signed, Bill Roggio and I provided the following analysis:

"The agreement is, to put it mildly, a boon to the terrorists and a humiliation for the Pakistani government. . . . The accord provides that the Pakistani army will abandon outposts and border crossings throughout Waziristan. Pakistan's military agreed that it will no longer operate in North Waziristan or monitor actions in the region. Pakistan will return weapons and other equipment seized during Pakistani army operations. And the Pakistani government essentially paid a tribute to end the fighting when it agreed to pay compensation for property destroyed during combat -- an unusual move since most of the property that was destroyed belonged to factions that had consciously decided to harbor terrorists. Of particular concern is the provision allowing non-Pakistani militants to continue to reside in Waziristan as long as they promise to "keep the peace." Keeping the peace will, in practice, be defined as refraining from attacks on the Pakistani military. Meanwhile, since the military won't be monitoring the militants' activities, they can plan and train for terrorist attacks or work to bolster the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan without being seen to violate the treaty."

It is unsurprising that the Waziristan Accord has failed: the truly astonishing news is that so many analysts waited until now to declare it a failure.

I spoke with a senior military intelligence officer about the Times article. He reports that the Times's description that camps in Pakistan have "yet to reach the size and level of sophistication of the Qaeda camps established in Afghanistan under Taliban rule" and its mention of "groups of 10 to 20 men" being trained is only a partial picture of the training camps in Pakistan. The Times article focuses on al-Qaeda camps in Pakistan, camps where militants receive the kind of training that could enable them to carry out terrorist attacks in the West. But there are also larger military training camps -- the kind that are used to train Taliban fighters to attack coalition forces in Afghanistan, or to train Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, or other Kashmiri separatist groups. The training required to carry out a terrorist attack in the West is different than what is needed to fight in Afghanistan or Kashmir.

The senior officer also noted that the Times article portrays al-Qaeda as having fragmented in 2005, when "American intelligence assessments described senior leaders of Al Qaeda as cut off from their foot soldiers and able only to provide inspiration for future attacks." In his estimation, such assessments were essentially intelligence failures: al-Qaeda's senior leadership was regrouping and gathering force during this period, and Western intelligence wasn't aware of it. The reason we realize it now, he says, is because the strength of al-Qaeda's central leadership has become blatantly obvious.

There is support for this view. When the 7/7 Tube bombings hit London in the summer of 2005, a number of analysts jumped to announce that there was no link to a central al-Qaeda network. This view was later undercut when al-Qaeda released martyrdom tapes recorded by 7/7 bombers Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, and when news organizations learned that both men met with al-Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Pakistani tribal areas in 2005. These revelations prompted Chatham House analyst Bob Ayers to say of early police reports, "It makes the police look pretty bad. It means the investigation was either wrong, or they had identified links, but were reluctant to reveal them."

There are three areas of particular concern to note. First, the gathering of al-Qaeda forces in Waziristan and other parts of Pakistan makes the terrorist group increasingly look very similar to how it looked prior to 9/11. Much of the progress that the U.S. and other Western countries have made over the past five years will be lost if al-Qaeda is able to regenerate in this manner. Second, a number of British citizens of Pakistani descent have been to training camps in Pakistan. This is of great concern because people traveling with Commonwealth passports come under less suspicion when entering other Commonwealth countries. This includes Canada -- which may, in turn, make it easier for graduates of the training camps in Pakistan to attack the U.S. And a third point of concern is that, although analysts now concede that the Waziristan Accord has failed, they aren't discussing what should be done now. Indeed, I have spoken with nobody in policymaking or intelligence circles with a good answer to that question.

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