President Barack Obama was playing out a grim scenario when he sat top world leaders, Xi Jinping, Angela Merkel, David Cameron, around a table at The Hague on Tuesday, March 25, to play a war game. “Nukes on the loose” was designed to test their responses to a “dirty bomb” nuclear attack by terrorists.
He told them, “I continue to be much more concerned… with the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan than with Russia.”
However, once again, America’s counterterrorism agencies were a step or two behind the enemy. The next day, their officials conveyed to the media their mounting concern about the “coalescence in Syria” of al Qaeda fighting strength pouring in from Afghanistan, Pakistan, the US, Canada and parts of Western Europe. Syria had become America’s most critical homeland front, they said.
But, say DEBKA Weekly’s counterterrorism watchers, their target has spread far beyond Syria. The jihadis have for the past six to ten months been swarming across the Middle East map and established new frontiers of terror.
And while US agencies cannot decide whether the flow of jihadist traffic is ad hoc or orchestrated, there is ample evidence that its dispersal is organized and calculated to fit in with al Qaeda leader Ayman Zuwahiri’s current decision to go back to his predecessor’s old ambition of striking the West.
Contrary to President Obama’s oft-repeated claim that Al Qaeda’s central authority was diminished by the death of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011, Zuwahiri has managed to establish a firm grip on central command.
Al Qaeda presumed to have acquired a dirty bomb or bombs
DEBKA Weekly is the only Western publication to have systematically tracked for two years the dispersal of al Qaeda veterans to new bases of operation in the footsteps of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Syrian Nusra Front, the Thuwwar Front, Ahrar ash-Sham and other jihadi factions.
Many of the Islamist fighters who once poured into Syria to fight Bashar Assad have moved on to their next station in Iraq, either to fight there or as a staging post to their next Middle East springboards for terrorist assaults on the United States and Europe.
Here are some of their current directions and objectives:
1. It must be taken as a given that al Qaeda has acquired a dirty bomb or bombs. The US president’s concern for New York was therefore well-founded. So too was the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s comment on March 10. While inspecting the Syrian-made missiles Iran had consigned clandestinely for terrorists, he said: “Tomorrow Iran will hide nuclear suitcases.”
This remark did not figure prominently in the local media coverage of the Iranian missile ship seized by Israeli commandos opposite Sudan. There was no wish to scare the general public.
However our military sources report that, on the quiet, the country is being prepared for the contingency of a deadly Al Qaeda incursion. A “dirty bomb” attack is taken into account.
Zuwahiri changes direction, reverts to targeting big US cities
2. Up until now, US intelligence and counterterrorism authorities relied on Zuwahiri sticking to his early tactical philosophy whereby, contrary to his predecessor, he espoused focusing al Qaeda operations on local authorities in host countries, mainly Asia, Africa and the Middle East, instead of squandering resources on large-scale operations on the lines of 9/11. This guideline fostered local initiatives and weakened the authority of central al Qaeda command.
But in recently months, the al Qaeda leader has struck out in a different direction, advocating a new orientation that was clearly laid out in the March edition of al Qaeda’s English-language magazine Inspire. The faithful are now urged to set off car bombs in the United States, specifically in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington DC and New York City, and sensitive centers of influence in other Western countries. London’s Savoy Hotel was singled out as a favorite watering hole for tycoons
A photo of Times Square featured on one of its pages has put the New York Police on high alert.
The new guidelines told bombers to target specific places with many people, i.e. crowd centers to maximize casualties.
An editorial on Inspire’s website warned that “many Feisal Shahzads reside in America and all they need is the knowledge of how to make car bombs.”
(Shahzad, a US citizen, was arrested in 2010 after trying to detonate a car bomb in Times Square. He was thwarted by a nearby food vendor and Navy veteran Duane Jackson.)
The editorial continues: “They are all yearning to fulfill their duty of Jihad… The American government was unable to protect its citizens from pressure cooker bombs in backpacks (a reference to the Boston marathon bombers); we wonder if they are ready to stop car bombs!”
Al Qaeda’s mobility owes much to US passivity
So Zuwahiri has signed off on to a fresh campaign of terror inside the United States. He did not refer to Feisal Shahzad by chance. He met him personally in 2008 when Shahzad was being trained in the arts of bomb-making at a camp run by Islamist terrorists in the Pakistani tribal belt of Waziristan.
His name was used in the editorial as a clarion call to all “Feisal Shahzads” to move out of their Middle East rear bases and make tracks for America for a new round of jihadist operations.
3. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, chief of the ISIS, may or may not be at odds with Zuwahiri, but his organization is proving a magnet for American and West European Islamists. They are flocking to Iraq to join up with his organization.
ISIS also leads the pack in channeling fighters to new locations – notably of late, Egypt.
DEBKA Weekly’s counterterrorism sources strongly doubt that this most vibrant branch of al Qaeda could organize the clandestine cross-border migration of fighters without the aid of a central command. Their movement to Egypt and Sinai would have required the personal say-so of Zuwahiri, as the most prominent alumni of Egypt’s most extreme Islamist movements.
4. Al Qaeda’s newfound mobility for moving nimbly between Middle East arenas is largely the outcome of the Obama administration’s resolve to pull in its horns from direct confrontation with jihadi terror as an inevitable side product of non-interventionist policies for Syria, Iraq and Egypt.
Iraqi, Egyptian rulers avoid coming to grips with al Qaeda
This policy has percolated to all levels of the US government and intelligence community and held Washington back from effectively curbing al Qaeda’s rampant expansion.
It translates into unyielding US refusal to let Iraq, Egypt and Syrian rebels have the advanced weapons, like warplanes, helicopters and missiles, they need desperately for the pursuit of al Qaeda, while at the same time Washington cuts back on its own drone warfare.
DEBKA Weekly picked up on this point in its last week’s issue (#628 of March 21: US Disengages from War on Terror, Gives al Qaeda Free Rein in 11 Targeted Countries).
Add to this US disengagement the reluctance of the Egyptian and Iraqi regimes to take al Qaeda on directly. Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki lacks the fighting forces to curtail al Qaeda’s expansion in the west and center of the country.
And, so long as Egypt’s Defense Minister and prospective president, ex-Gen. Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi, holds back from coming to grips with al Qaeda’s mountain fastnesses in central Sinai, the Islamist terrorists will dig in deeper and reach out to an expanding circle of targets.
(More about al Qaeda’s plans in the Saudi and Israeli contexts in two separate articles.)