While Osama bin Laden and his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are believed to remain in a tribal redoubt along the Afghan-Pakistani border, midlevel al Qaeda leaders are fanning out, recruiting new middlemen and establishing stronger bases in Somalia and Yemen, U.S. and Pakistani officials say.
The moves reflect growing pressure on al Qaeda from U.S. drone attacks and Pakistani military operations that have killed nine of al Qaeda’s top 20 commanders as well as Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud.
“There are indications that some al Qaeda terrorists have started to view the tribal areas of Pakistan as an even rougher place to be,” a U.S. counterterrorism official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Washington Times.
“Some of these terrorists have undoubtedly ended up in Somalia and Yemen, among other places.”
On Sunday, John Brennan, the top White House adviser on counterterrorism and homeland security, delivered a letter from President Obama to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh asking for more cooperation on fighting al Qaeda’s growing presence in the country. Mr. Obama also offered additional foreign aid to the poverty-plagued nation, according to U.S. and Yemeni officials.
Militants also have been turning up increasingly in Pakistani cities.
On Aug. 19, Pakistani authorities recovered the body of an Algerian, Abdullah Noori, a close associate of bin Laden’s, in the Tehkal section of Peshawar, a Pakistani city that is the capital of the North West Frontier Province. According to local police, the body showed additional marks of violence.
Pakistani police also arrested Saifullah, a Pakistani militant considered close to al Qaeda, in Bara Kahu, a suburb of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. Police said Saifullah had moved from the Waziristan tribal region seeking medical treatment after being injured in a drone attack.
On Aug. 28, police arrested 12 purported al Qaeda members, including Sudanese, Swedes and Turks in the Dera Ghazi Khan district of Punjab province. According to district police officer Muhammad Rizwan, the district, located at the crossroads of Waziristan, Baluchistan and Punjab provinces, has been a conduit for al Qaeda fighters and arms moving to and from Taliban-controlled tribal lands.
The trend in some ways mirrors events following the collapse of the Taliban government in Afghanistan in 2001. For example, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, was captured in Rawalpindi in 2003. Bin Laden and Zawahiri also have been rumored to be in Quetta, Karachi and Peshawar at various times since 2002.
However, the buildup outside the region has been particularly pronounced in recent months, U.S. officials say.
“Al Qaeda is establishing new bases of operations outside of Pakistan,” said a U.S. defense official with knowledge of al Qaeda operations. “We now know that South Asia is no longer their main home base but that they are seeking refuge in other parts of the world and continuing to expand their organization. Despite our best efforts, al Qaeda is finding new havens to carry out their plans against the West.” The official spoke on condition that he not be named because of the nature of his work.
The U.S. official said that the United States has not been able to pay sufficient attention to Somalia and Yemen because of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We have limited resources in these regions,” the U.S. official said. “Not enough people in the intelligence community or the military paid the right attention to it, and al Qaeda has taken advantage of that to our disadvantage. This is going to be a serious problem for us in the near future.”
U.S. officials say there appears to be a nexus between al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia to coordinate training and attacks on Western targets.
In Somalia, al Qaeda has developed strong ties over the past year to al Shabab, a militant group that has waged war against a wobbly secular government. Al Qaeda also has invested resources in recruiting young children to train for suicide missions in Somalia as well as using young Somali men to fight against U.S. troops along the Afghan-Pakistani border, a U.S. official in Afghanistan said.
“We’ve seen evidence of al Qaeda fighters from African nations here in Afghanistan,” the official said, speaking on condition that he not be named. “Al Qaeda recruits from Somalia and other African countries where we really don’t have much presence. Unfortunately, they’re growing in numbers there.”
Al Qaeda in Yemen and Saudi Arabia merged into a single organization earlier this year, calling itself Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen. The group has taken advantage of tribal and religious affiliations to establish safe havens in rugged and largely ungoverned tribal regions that have been difficult for U.S. intelligence to penetrate.
Yemeni al Qaeda leader Abu Basir Nasser Al-Wahaishi reportedly has recruited many young foot soldiers over the past year, exploiting Yemen’s considerable economic and political problems.
Christopher Boucek, a Yemen specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who recently visited Yemen, said more than 40 percent of the people live in poverty and the population is expected to double to more than 40 million by 2030.
According to Yemeni officials, the country’s 2.8 billion barrels of oil reserves, which fund approximately 70 percent of the national budget, will run dry in the next decade.
“There is a lot of concern regarding Yemen and al Qaeda,” Mr. Boucek said. “The three big problems are the economy, demographics and domestic security. These three are all interconnected, and the big fear is that al Qaeda aligned with other extremist groups will take advantage of this and make use of these ungoverned spaces.”
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for the attempted assassination last month of Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a deputy interior minister and the man in charge of counterterrorism in Saudi Arabia.
Though the prince escaped with minor injuries, the attack was the first against a member of the Saudi royal family in decades.
A Yemeni official, who asked not to be named because he was discussing intelligence matters, said his country has limited resources to battle terrorism.
“It’s a complex problem inside our country,” he said. “We are worried about our own internal affairs and we must also worry about al Qaeda’s influence.”
Mr. Boucek said U.S. aid to Yemen - about $30 million in 2007 according to the State Department - is very limited considering the al Qaeda threat.
“Very, very quickly, Yemen will rise to the top of the list of major concerns in a very bad way,” Mr. Boucek said. “We just have to hope it won’t be the last minute before we recognize it.”
Raza Khan reported from Islamabad.