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Pakistan Taliban threats to West limited, analysts say

Capability to attack U.S., Europe seen tied to homegrown terrorists

ISLAMABAD | Pakistan's Taliban militia is vowing to launch terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe, but they lack the capability to conduct global attacks on their own, according to terrorism specialists.

But close links between homegrown terrorists in Western countries and Muslim insurgents in Pakistan is viewed as a potential threat to the security of America and Europe.

Qari Hussain Mehsud, a key leader of Pakistan Taliban or Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), said recently, "We will launch attacks in America and Europe very soon."

Mr. Mehsud is considered the operational leader behind TTP terrorism and militancy in Pakistan and is reverently called Ustad-e-Fidayeen, or master-trainer of suicide attackers within militant ranks. He made the threat to stage terrorist attacks in the West in a brief interview with Reuters.

Mr. Mehsud's position and his previous low profile in the news media have bolstered fears that he will follow through with the threats to launch attacks against the American homeland and European continent.

But concerned Pakistani officials, experts and observers who track Pakistan Taliban groups said the TTP does not have the ability or potential to conduct terrorist strikes in the Western countries because it lacks people and resources.

"U.S. CIA-operated drones have taken a heavy toll on Pakistani Taliban while military operations in the biggest hub of TTP - South Waziristan - by Pakistani forces has largely dismantled the TTP command-and-control structure," Ashraf Ali, the leading Pakistani specialist on the Taliban told The Washington Times.

"Moreover, the differences within the TTP between the groups led by Qari Hussain Mehsud, Hakimullah Mehsud and Shaheen Mehsud on the one hand with the group led by TTP deputy commander Waliur Rahman has affected the strength of TTP," he said.

"At the moment, the number of active fighters the TTP is having is merely 2,000 to 2,500 at the most," he added. "In such a situation when the TTP is almost on the run, making such a statement is foolish and childish."

But analysts at the same time also fear the close links al Qaeda, with its global terrorist network, has with the Pakistan Taliban, which have led to blurring of boundaries between the two groups, raise fears that the former will extend its terrorist reach from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region to the United States and Europe.

Following renewed large-scale terrorist attacks by TTP fighters in Pakistan in recent weeks that have claimed hundreds of lives, Pakistan Home Minister Rahman Malik said "there is no difference between al Qaeda, TTP or Lashkar-e-Jhangvi."

The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is an extremist, anti-Shiite, Sunni organization now forming as a central part of TTP.

"However, you can say that Al Qaeda does have the capacity to stage terrorist attacks in U.S. and Europe, as it has worldwide cells and networks. And if it provides the platform, then TTP-trained militants could stage attacks inside the U.S. and Europe. But these terrorist could not necessarily be members of TTP from Pakistan," said Mr. Ali, president of the Islamabad-based FATA Research Center.

Al Qaeda's top leadership and strategists have been hosted and provided sanctuaries by Pakistani Taliban groups in Pakistan tribal lands or Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) since the ouster of al Qaeda from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in 2001.

Al Qaeda had its largest base in Taliban-governed Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 and was forced to flee Afghanistan toward Pakistan after the ouster of the regime by U.S. and NATO forces, working with northern Afghan tribes in late 2001.

There are no precise figures on the numbers of TTP fighters, who include foot soldiers and suicide-bombing recruits, or its weaponry.

Seven CIA officers, including the chief of the base, and an officer of Jordan's General Intelligence Directorate were killed, and six others were seriously wounded when an attacker, posing as a recruited intelligence agent, detonated a bomb he was carrying. The bombing was the most lethal attack against the CIA in more than 25 years.

One of the main tasks of the CIA operatives stationed at the base was to provide information used in aerial drone attacks against targets in Pakistan.

The Pakistan Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack through an informant, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, a Jordanian doctor who feigned he was working against al Qaeda. A video of al-Balawi with TTP head Hakimullah Mehsud later surfaced in which the double agent was being hosted by the Mehsud as al-Balawi vowed to carry out the bombing attack.

Pakistani analysts said TTP leaders are bent on conducting some type of terrorist attack on U.S. soil and in Europe. They point to the case of Faisal Shehzad, who pleaded guilty to the attempted car bombing in New York's Times Square on May 1. The bombing attempt was linked by investigators to TTP terrorists in Pakistan.

Shehzad admitted he travelled to Waziristan, where he received terrorist training from TTP trainers.

Shehzad, a Pakistan-born naturalized U.S. citizen, is from Peshawar, the northwestern Pakistani city, which is also the capital of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.

Qari Hussain Mehsud stated in an audiotape message released on a YouTube website calling itself the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan News Channel that the group was behind the failed New York attack by Shehzad.

Some Pakistan counterterrorism specialists said Shehzad's attempted bombing bolsters the threat by TTP leader Qari Hussain Mehsud to launch attacks in the United States and Europe. They suspect the group is seeking the capability of using Western-born Muslims or naturalized U.S. citizens.

"If you take the full statement of Qari Hussain [Mehsud] into consideration, then one could make out that Hussain means, that like Faisal Shehzad, the TTP also have other such people to strike in the U.S. and Europe," said Peshawar-based veteran journalist Zahir Shah.

"It is not the matter of capacity of TTP to stage attacks inside the U.S., but if it has or it claims to have the support of American citizens very much like Faisal Shehzad, then attacks in the U.S. become a possibility.

"Even the TTP claims of having recruited and trained foreigners from countries like Germany, France, then it means the group has plans of using the citizens of America and European countries against their respective countries. In other words, that Pakistanis would not travel to the West to launch terrorist attacks," added Mr. Shah, one of the few news media reporters to hold a face-to-face audience with TTP founder Baitullah Mehsud and its current head, Hakimullah Mehsud.

Pakistani Taliban and FATA-based Al Qaeda militants have already attempted to use American Muslim recruits to carry out terrorist attacks after imparting them with training in Waziristan. In December 2009, Pakistani police arrested five American Muslims in Sargodha town in Punjab province for suspected activities.

U.S. security officials said the Americans attended a mosque in Virginia and were staying in Sargodha on their way to North Waziristan for training with the Taliban and al Qaeda to fight U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan and for carrying out terrorist attacks back home.

The five Americans were convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison by a Pakistani court in June on different counts, including planning terrorist attacks.

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