Al Qaeda-linked groups around the world are growing dangers, recruiting a new generation of terrorists, many with Western passports who can infiltrate the United States or Europe for deadly, small-scale attacks, U.S. intelligence chiefs warned Congress on Tuesday.
Islamic extremists inspired by al Qaeda are well-established in Yemen and Somalia and are emerging in countries such as Nigeria, CIA Director David H. Petraeus told a joint hearing of the Senate and House intelligence committees.
These affiliate groups “have their own command structures, resource bases and operational agendas, and they largely operate autonomously,” he said.
Many of their recruits have Western passports and backgrounds that “make them well-suited for targeting the United States and Europe,” Mr. Petraeus said.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, is the most dangerous of the affiliates, he said. Political unrest in Yemen has helped the terrorists expand their territory and influence.
Al-Shabab in southern Somalia is “large and well-funded,” and the lawless East African nation is now “one of the world’s most significant havens for terrorists,” Mr. Petraeus said.
His warnings were given weight by the weekend arrest of four men in Sweden, charged with plotting a terrorist attack in the city of Gothenburg. The suspects, three of whom are naturalized Swedish citizens, are linked to al-Shabab, according to Swedish media reports.
Mr. Petraeus added that al Qaeda affiliates also are emerging in Nigeria, where the extremist group Boko Haram staged a deadly suicide bomb attack on the U.N. headquarters in Abuja last month in its “first known lethal operation against Westerners.”
“Despite being less able to coordinate large-scale attacks, al Qaeda and its sympathizers do continue to train and deploy operatives in small numbers for overseas plots relatively small attacks that would nonetheless generate fear and create the need for costly security improvements,” he said.
In al Qaeda’s homeland on the mountainous and remote Afghanistan-Pakistan border, however, there is a “window of vulnerability” for the core organization, after the killing of Osama bin Laden and two other top leaders this year and the arrest of one of the group’s military commanders in Pakistan last week, Mr. Petraeus said.
“These setbacks have shaken al Qaeda’s sense of security in Pakistan’s tribal areas,” he said.
Its leaders have been killed or imprisoned, and the group now “is largely focused on rebuilding,” he said. Jemaah Islamiyah was responsible for the Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005.