PESHAWAR, Pakistan — In the Pakistani tribal regions that harbor al Qaeda and a caldron of other jihadist groups, Islamic militants from Central Asia, China, Turkey and even Germany are growing in number, eclipsing Arabs and possibly raising new challenges not just for the U.S., but for Europe, Russia and China, say intelligence officials, analysts and residents of the area.
But stepped-up U.S. drone strikes, Pakistani military offensives and dwindling cash reserves have driven out many of the Arabic-speakers in recent years, says Mahmood Shah, a retired brigadier and former security official in the tribal regions.
While there are no exact numbers, Brig. Shah said intelligence sources in the tribal regions put the number of Arab and African jihadists at about 1,500, compared with 3,500 to 4,000 ranging from Chinese Uighurs and Uzbeks to recruits from Turkey and the Russian republics of Chechnya and Dagestan, as well as native and immigrant Germans.
Two senior U.S. officials said the drone war is affecting al Qaeda numbers and morale. The deaths of high-profile al Qaeda figures such as Abu Yahya al-Libi, killed in a drone strike in June, have made others skittish, prompting some to leave Pakistan for other battlefields in Syria, Yemen, Iraq or their home countries, the officials said.
In separate interviews, both Americans cited the case of a Saudi named Najam, who lost his legs to a drone strike at about the same time as al-Libi died. They said Najam, who came from an affluent family, was able to reach an agreement with the Saudi government to return to his wife and children.
Intelligence suggests that Najam’s treatment has encouraged other militants to seek similar deals, switch to other battlefields or seek leniency from their governments, both U.S. officials said.
They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss information gleaned from on-the-ground intelligence.
None of the Central Asian groups figuring in the apparent demographic change are new to the tribal regions.
Some were welcomed to Afghanistan decades ago during the 1980s Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Others arrived during the Taliban’s rule of Afghanistan that lasted from 1996 to the American-led invasion of 2001. The breakaway Chechen government even had an embassy in Kabul.
The arrest in Madrid a month ago of three men who are said to have had explosives and reportedly trained in Pakistan’s tribal areas seems to highlight the changing reality.
Two of them, Eldar Magomedov and Mohamed Ankari Adamov, were said to be Russians of Chechen descent, while the third, Cengiz Yalcin, is Turkish.
Spanish officials contend they were planning an attack in Spain or elsewhere in Europe. There was no identification of the target.