- Associated Press - Thursday, September 6, 2012

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.

Al Qaeda, the organization that plotted the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks from Afghanistan, consisted largely of Arabs who were led by Osama bin Laden, a Saudi.

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.

Changing demographics

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 Sept. 11, 2001, attacks focused global attention on Arab militants, but the changing demographics could have implications for Europe as well as Russia and China, analysts say.

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.

Analysts and officials who track militant movements say they think al Qaeda’s leadership, including Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahri, remains in Pakistan, where its redoubts have shrunk further under Pakistani military assaults, according to Mr. Shah, the ex-brigadier, who was interviewed in the northwest Pakistani city of Peshawar near the tribal regions.

But jihadists from outside the Arab world have been getting more attention.

New terrorist group emerges

A report on extremist trends released last month by Germany’s domestic intelligence said the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), headquartered in Pakistan’s tribal area, is “widening its sphere in the sense of global jihad to include Europe.”

Once dominated by ethnic Uzbeks, the IJU has sought to recruit German converts who have embraced a radical form of Islam, as well as Germans of Turkish origin, say analysts familiar with the organization.

In 2007, German intelligence foiled a terrorist plot planned by ethnic-German converts to Islam who belonged to the Islamic Jihad Union.

“They [IJU] want to recruit Turkish-origin people, but maybe born in Germany, established here and with a German passport they train them and build them up and send them to Germany, as well as to other European countries to commit acts of terrorism,” said Rolf Tophoven, director of the Institute for Terrorism Research and Security Policy, based in Essen, Germany.

According to the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks Islamist extremist messages, the IJU is known as the European affiliate of al Qaeda. SITE described the IJU’s rise in prominence as a significant development within the global jihadist movement.

The IJU, like other jihadi groups, seeks the installation, if necessary by force, of Islamic governments and revenge for Western attacks. In 2005, the U.S. State Department designated the IJU a foreign terrorist group.

Eyes on Central Asia

For the past 30 years, Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Washington’s Georgetown University, has been tracking terrorist groups and studying insurgencies. He said that European governments, as well as China and Russia, have good reason to keep a close eye on the tribal regions of Pakistan.

“The IJU was also strengthened by their access to German converts,” as well as to disaffected members of China’s Muslim Uighur minority, concentrated in Xinjiang, western China, whose radicalization “the Chinese are very concerned about,” Mr. Hoffman said.

Russia, too, has strong interests in the Muslim-dominated republics that were part of the Soviet Union, and in Chechnya and Dagestan, he said.

The threat from the changing jihadist demographics is “more in the future than immediately,” he said in an interview. “The main threat is that the existing nucleus will attract more, and as time goes on, the threat will increase. It exists now, but at a lower level.”

Ivan Safranchuk, an associate professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, told the AP that the governments of the Central Asian republics also fear instability from neighboring Afghanistan once NATO and U.S. troops leave in 2014.

Mr. Safranchuk, who edits the Great Game, a magazine focused on Central Asia, said training camps in Pakistan have attracted mostly Uighurs and recruits from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

“If a new battle front opens in Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan, say, these militants will naturally be dispatched there,” he said.