Senior leaders of Al Qaeda operating from Pakistan have re-established significant control over their once-battered worldwide terror network and over the past year have set up a band of training camps in the tribal regions near the Afghan border, according to American intelligence and counterterrorism officials.
American officials said there was mounting evidence that Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, had been steadily building an operations hub in the mountainous Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan. Until recently, the Bush administration had described Mr. bin Laden and Mr. Zawahri as detached from their followers and cut off from operational control of Al Qaeda.
The United States has also identified several new Qaeda compounds in North Waziristan, including one that officials said might be training operatives for strikes against targets beyond Afghanistan.
American analysts said recent intelligence showed that the compounds functioned under a loose command structure and were operated by groups of Arab, Pakistani and Afghan militants allied with Al Qaeda. They receive guidance from their commanders and Mr. Zawahri, the analysts said. Mr. bin Laden, who has long played less of an operational role, appears to have little direct involvement.
Officials said the training camps had yet to reach the size and level of sophistication of the Qaeda camps established in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. But groups of 10 to 20 men are being trained at the camps, the officials said, and the Qaeda infrastructure in the region is gradually becoming more mature.
The new warnings are different from those made in recent months by intelligence officials and terrorism experts, who have spoken about the growing abilities of Taliban forces and Pakistani militants to launch attacks into Afghanistan. American officials say that the new intelligence is focused on Al Qaeda and points to the prospect that the terrorist network is gaining in strength despite more than five years of a sustained American-led campaign to weaken it.
The intelligence and counterterrorism officials would discuss the classified intelligence only on the condition of anonymity. They would not provide some of the evidence that led them to their assessments, saying that revealing the information would disclose too much about the sources and methods of intelligence collection.
The concern about a resurgent Al Qaeda has been the subject of intensive discussion at high levels of the Bush administration, the officials said, and has reignited debate about how to address Pakistan’s role as a haven for militants without undermining the government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president.
Last week, President Bush’s senior counterterrorism adviser, Frances Fragos Townsend, went to Afghanistan during a Middle East trip to meet with security officials about rising concerns on Al Qaeda’s resurgence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, an administration official said.
Officials from several different American intelligence and counterterrorism agencies presented a consistent picture in describing the developments as a major setback to American efforts against Al Qaeda.
A Split Over Strategy
But debates within the administration about how best to deal with the threat have yet to yield any good solutions, officials in Washington said. One counterterrorism official said that some within the Pentagon were advocating American strikes against the camps, but that others argued that any raids could result in civilian casualties. And State Department officials say increased American pressure could undermine President Musharraf’s military-led government.
Some of the interviews with officials were granted after John D. Negroponte, then the director of national intelligence, told Congress last month that “Al Qaeda’s core elements are resilient” and that the organization was “cultivating stronger operational connections and relationships that radiate outward from their leaders’ secure hide-out in Pakistan to affiliates throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.”
As recently as 2005, American intelligence assessments described senior leaders of Al Qaeda as cut off from their foot soldiers and able only to provide inspiration for future attacks. But more recent intelligence describes the organization’s hierarchy as intact and strengthening.
“The chain of command has been re-established,” said one American government official, who said that the Qaeda “leadership command and control is robust.”
American officials and analysts said a variety of factors in Pakistan had come together to allow “core Al Qaeda” — a reference to Mr. bin Laden and his immediate circle — to regain some of its strength. The emergence of a relative haven in North Waziristan and the surrounding area has helped senior operatives communicate more effectively with the outside world via courier and the Internet.
The investigation into last summer’s failed plot to bomb airliners in London has led counterterrorism officials to what they say are “clear linkages” between the plotters and core Qaeda operatives in Pakistan. American analysts point out that the trials of terrorism suspects in Britain revealed that some of the defendants had been trained in Pakistan.
In a videotaped statement last year, Mr. Zawahri claimed responsibility for the July 2005 London suicide bombings. Included in the same tape was a statement by one of the London suicide bombers, pledging allegiance to Al Qaeda. Two of the four bombers traveled to Pakistan prior to the attack.
Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, told the House Armed Services Committee last week that Al Qaeda “is on the march.” He said, “Al Qaeda in fact is now functioning exactly as its founder and leader, Osama bin Laden, envisioned it,” because, he said, Qaeda leaders are planning major attacks and inspiring militants to carry out attacks around the globe.
Other experts questioned the seriousness of Pakistan’s commitment. They argued that elements of Pakistan’s military still supported the Taliban and saw them as a valuable proxy to counter the rising influence of India, Pakistan’s regional rival.
Joint Efforts by Militants
Since 2001, members of various militant groups in Pakistan have increased their cooperation with one another in the tribal areas, according to American analysts.
The analysts said that North Waziristan became a hub of militant activity last year, after President Musharraf negotiated a treaty with tribal leaders in the area. He pledged to pull troops back to barracks in the area in exchange for tribal leaders’ ending support for cross-border attacks into Afghanistan, but officials in Washington and Islamabad conceded that the agreement had been a failure.
During a news conference days before last November’s elections, President Bush said of the campaign against Al Qaeda: “Absolutely, we’re winning. Al Qaeda is on the run.”
But in a speech several days ago, Mr. Bush painted a more sober picture of Al Qaeda’s current strength, especially inside Pakistan.
“Taliban and Al Qaeda figures do hide in remote regions of Pakistan,” Mr. Bush said. “This is wild country; this is wilder than the Wild West. And these folks hide and recruit and launch attacks.”
Officials said that both American and foreign intelligence services had collected evidence leading them to conclude that at least one of the camps in Pakistan might be training operatives capable of striking Western targets. A particular concern is that the camps are frequented by British citizens of Pakistani descent who travel to Pakistan on British passports.
In a speech in November, the director general of MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, said that terrorist plots in Britain “often have links back to Al Qaeda in Pakistan.” She said that “through those links, Al Qaeda gives guidance and training to its largely British foot soldiers here on an extensive and growing scale.”
Leaders Appear Secure
Officials said that the United States still had little idea where Mr. bin Laden and Mr. Zawahri had been hiding since 2001, but that the two men were not believed to be present in the camps currently operating in North Waziristan. Among the indicators that American officials cited as a sign that Qaeda leaders felt more secure was the release of 21 statements by Mr. bin Laden and Mr. Zawahri in 2006, roughly twice the number as in the previous year.
In the past, statements issued by Mr. bin Laden and Mr. Zawahri referred to events that were sometimes several weeks old, one official said, suggesting that the men had difficulty creating a secure means of distributing the tapes. Now, the statements are more current, at times referring to events that occurred days earlier.
American intelligence and counterterrorism officials said that most of the men receiving training in Pakistan had been carrying out attacks inside Afghanistan, but that Al Qaeda had also strengthened its ties to groups in Iraq that had sworn allegiance to Mr. bin Laden. They said dozens of seasoned fighters were moving between Pakistan and Iraq, apparently engaging in an “exchange of best practices” for attacking American forces.
Over the past year, insurgent tactics from Iraq have migrated to Afghanistan, where suicide bombings have increased fivefold and roadside bomb attacks have doubled. In testimony to the House Armed Services Committee last week, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, the departing commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, said the United States could not prevail in Afghanistan and defeat global terrorism without addressing the havens in Pakistan.
Pakistani officials say that they are doing their best to gain control of the area and that military efforts to pacify it have failed, but that more reconstruction aid is needed.
Officials said that over the past year, Al Qaeda had also shown an increased international capability, citing as an example its alliance with the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, an Algerian-based group that has carried out a series of attacks in recent months.
Last fall, the Algerian group renamed itself Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb. Officials in Washington say they believe that the group is linked to a recent string of sophisticated car bombings and other attacks in Algeria, including a December attack on a bus carrying Halliburton contractors.