September 2002 News

Qaeda operatives returning from Pakistan

11 September 2002
The New York Times
James Risen and Dexter Filkins

Washington DC: American intelligence officials say that Al Qaeda operatives who found refuge in Pakistan are starting to regroup and move back into Afghanistan, less than a year after a successful U.S. military campaign forced them to flee their one-time sanctuary by the thousands. The movement back into Afghanistan is still relatively small and is being conducted by Al Qaeda members traveling in small groups, the officials say. Most of the thousands who escaped Afghanistan after U.S.-led forces defeated the Taliban government are not seeking to return. Instead, they remain scattered throughout South Asia and the Middle East, creating a terrorist diaspora that is now of deep concern to American counterterrorism officials. Some have found havens in Iran and Iraq, although American intelligence officials are divided over whether they are receiving active support from either country. Still, American officials say the world's largest concentrations of Al Qaeda operatives are now in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the recent influx into Afghanistan is creating new dangers. Al Qaeda members are believed to have conducted a series of small attacks against U.S. forces in Afghanistan in recent weeks and may have been behind the attempted assassination of the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, and the deadly car bombing in Kabul last week, according to Afghan and American officials. The return of some Qaeda operatives represents a serious threat to the U.S.-$ backed Karzai government, which has been unable to gain effective control of the Afghan countryside. Until recently, Al Qaeda seemed to be trying to shift its base of operations to Pakistan, with many of the its leaders finding sanctuary either in the country's remote tribal regions along the Afghan border or in cities, including Karachi. In the tribal regions, Al Qaeda operatives found support from sympathetic local leaders willing to defy the Pakistani government's efforts to crack down on Islamic radicals. In the remote region that straddles Pakistan's 2,250-kilometer, or 1,400-mile, border with Afghanistan, the government of Pakistan has exerted only a nominal presence. Pakistanis interviewed recently in the tribal areas recounted how hundreds of Qaeda men had streamed out of Afghanistan in the months after the Taliban's collapse. Local mullahs helped many to travel on to Pakistani cities or across the parched sands of Baluchistan and into Iran. Others were said to be hiding in refugee camps or in any number of the 10,000 private Islamic schools in Pakistan. But American officials say that the recent shift back into Afghanistan has changed perceptions of Pakistan as Al Qaeda's new central hub. 'A few months ago, I would have said that the new center of gravity of Al Qaeda was in Pakistan,' a senior American intelligence official said. 'Today, I don't think you can say that. I think you can see concentrations in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.' While U.S. military might have smashed Al Qaeda's training camps and terrorist infrastructure in Afghanistan after the attacks last September on New York and Washington, officials throughout the U.S. government say that Al Qaeda has quickly adapted. It is in the process of transforming itself into a more mobile, flexible and elusive force. 'Management books talk about learning organizations,' an American intelligence official said. Osama bin Laden, he said, 'built something that is a learning organization. It is changing and adapting to the loss of its infrastructure.' Still, the U.S. campaign against Al Qaeda has had some dramatic successes. Leaders of Al Qaeda, including bin Laden himself, are either dead, in prison, in hiding or on the run. Some senior American counterterrorism officials say they believe that the group - at least right now - lacks the ability to mount another terrorist operation on the scale of the Sept. 11 attacks. American officials say that about 2,700 known or suspected Al Qaeda operatives have been detained or arrested around the world since Sept. 11. Of the 24 members of the Al Qaeda leadership identified by the ClA before the Sept. 11 attacks, 10 have either been killed or captured, officials said. Four are in custody, including Abu Zubaydah, who was Al Qaeda's chief of operations. Officials identified the three others as Abu Zubair, Ibn Shaykh Libi, and a man known by his nom de guerre, Riyadh the Facilitator. Abu Zubaydah has been undergoing extensive interrogation since his capture and has provided important information, American officials say. Six other Al Qaeda leaders are presumed dead, most significantly Mohammed Atef, who was Al Qaeda's military chief last Sept. 11. He is believed to have been killed in an American bombing raid in Afghanistan in November. The fate of bin Laden himself remains uncertain. A debate has been raging for months inside the U.S. government over whether he is dead or alive, but the intelligence remains so fragmentary that officials say it is difficult to reach a definitive answer. WASHINGTON American intelligence officials say that Al Qaeda operatives who found refuge in Pakistan are starting to regroup and move back into Afghanistan, less than a year after a successful U.S. military campaign forced them to flee their one-time sanctuary by the thousands. The movement back into Afghanistan is still relatively small and is being conducted by Al Qaeda members traveling in small groups, the officials say. Most of the thousands who escaped Afghanistan after U.S.-led forces defeated the Taliban government are not seeking to return. Instead, they remain scattered throughout South Asia and the Middle East, creating a terrorist diaspora that is now of deep concern to American counterterrorism officials. Some have found havens in Iran and Iraq, although American intelligence officials are divided over whether they are receiving active support from either country. Still, American officials say the world's largest concentrations of Al Qaeda operatives are now in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the recent influx into Afghanistan is creating new dangers. Al Qaeda members are believed to have conducted a series of small attacks against U.S. forces in Afghanistan in recent weeks and may have been behind the attempted assassination of the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, and the deadly car bombing in Kabul last week, according to Afghan and American officials. The return of some Qaeda operatives represents a serious threat to the U.S.-$ backed Karzai government, which has been unable to gain effective control of the Afghan countryside. Until recently, Al Qaeda seemed to be trying to shift its base of operations to Pakistan, with many of the its leaders finding sanctuary either in the country's remote tribal regions along the Afghan border or in cities, including Karachi. In the tribal regions, Al Qaeda operatives found support from sympathetic local leaders willing to defy the Pakistani government's efforts to crack down on Islamic radicals. In the remote region that straddles Pakistan's 2,250-kilometer, or 1,400-mile, border with Afghanistan, the government of Pakistan has exerted only a nominal presence. Pakistanis interviewed recently in the tribal areas recounted how hundreds of Qaeda men had streamed out of Afghanistan in the months after the Taliban's collapse. Local mullahs helped many to travel on to Pakistani cities or across the parched sands of Baluchistan and into Iran. Others were said to be hiding in refugee camps or in any number of the 10,000 private Islamic schools in Pakistan. But American officials say that the recent shift back into Afghanistan has changed perceptions of Pakistan as Al Qaeda's new central hub. 'A few months ago, I would have said that the new center of gravity of Al Qaeda was in Pakistan,' a senior American intelligence official said. 'Today, I don't think you can say that. I think you can see concentrations in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.' While U.S. military might have smashed Al Qaeda's training camps and terrorist infrastructure in Afghanistan after the attacks last September on New York and Washington, officials throughout the U.S. government say that Al Qaeda has quickly adapted. It is in the process of transforming itself into a more mobile, flexible and elusive force. 'Management books talk about learning organizations,' an American intelligence official said. Osama bin Laden, he said, 'built something that is a learning organization. It is changing and adapting to the loss of its infrastructure.' Still, the U.S. campaign against Al Qaeda has had some dramatic successes. Leaders of Al Qaeda, including bin Laden himself, are either dead, in prison, in hiding or on the run. Some senior American counterterrorism officials say they believe that the group - at least right now - lacks the ability to mount another terrorist operation on the scale of the Sept. 11 attacks. American officials say that about 2,700 known or suspected Al Qaeda operatives have been detained or arrested around the world since Sept. 11. Of the 24 members of the Al Qaeda leadership identified by the ClA before the Sept. 11 attacks, 10 have either been killed or captured, officials said. Four are in custody, including Abu Zubaydah, who was Al Qaeda's chief of operations. Officials identified the three others as Abu Zubair, Ibn Shaykh Libi, and a man known by his nom de guerre, Riyadh the Facilitator. Abu Zubaydah has been undergoing extensive interrogation since his capture and has provided important information, American officials say. Six other Al Qaeda leaders are presumed dead, most significantly Mohammed Atef, who was Al Qaeda's military chief last Sept. 11. He is believed to have been killed in an American bombing raid in Afghanistan in November. The fate of bin Laden himself remains uncertain. A debate has been raging for months inside the U.S. government over whether he is dead or alive, but the intelligence remains so fragmentary that officials say it is difficult to reach a definitive answer.

 

Return to the Archives 2002 Index Page

Return to Home Page