Seven years after al Qaeda’s deadly attacks on America of Sept. 11, the US intelligence community still lacks a coherent picture of the internal workings of al Qaeda’s vast terrorist machinery – although in some ways the terrorist organization is more open to penetration than before.
Tuesday, Feb. 5, the director of US national intelligence Mike McConnel said: “Al Qaeda is improving the last key aspects of its ability to attack the US – the identification, training and positioning of operatives for an attack in the homeland.”
While better security had made the West, especially the US, a harder target, McConnel reported “…an influx of new Western recruits into the tribal areas (of Pakistan)” since mid-2006. With plans to specifically target the White House, “al Qaeda has leveraged its broad external networks – including some reaching into Europe – in support of external operations,” according to the US intelligence director.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter terror sources affirm that over the years, US intelligence has still not been able to gain a real handle on the structure of al Qaeda’s command structure, its operational planning rationale or the mechanism governing its methods of operations.
Osama bin Laden’s external networks are now spread out in four world centers: Northeast and South Waziristan – the semi-autonomous tribal lands between Pakistan and Afghanistan; Iraq; Algeria – for North Africa and the Sahara; and Europe.
Al Qaeda maintains sub-branches which operate through local fundamentalist organizations in Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, Sinai and Egypt on the eastern Mediterranean seaboard; in Yemen and Saudi Arabia (with a presence in several Gulf emirates such as Kuwait); in Central Asia, in India and Kashmir.
Al Qaeda’s vast recruiting pool – the envy of Western armies
Al Qaeda’s broad spread betokens is great strength. Overcoming serious debacles in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, it goes on recruiting, growing and expanding into new fields of operation.
Like the United States, which after four years of military punishment recovered by implementing its “surge strategy” from late 2006 to early 2007, so too al Qaeda saw its defeat on one front, Iraq, as nothing but a temporary hiccup to be overcome.
The jihadist organization’s commanders’ sleight of hand in conducting war synchronously on multiple fronts, while moving forces from one end of the world to the other, is equal to the skill of any Western commander, although the numbers handled are not the same.
What McConnel described as “an influx of new Western recruits in the tribal areas since mid-2006” was in fact al Qaeda’s third major recruitment and deployment project in four years.
The first, between 2004 and 2005, was a worldwide call-up of young Muslims to fight in Iraq under the command of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (who was killed later by US forces).
The second, taking place from 2006 to 2007, mustered fighters for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and is still going strong.
The third raised a force of young Muslims in North and East Africa and West Europe, both for local networks in those places – especially West Europe – and to bolster al Qaeda’s strength in Iraq and Pakistan.
A painful truth brought out by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in this regard is that al Qaeda can call on a larger manpower reserve pool in the medressas and the mosques of Muslim countries than the US or any other Western army can dream of.
Despite this vast infrastructure and its intercontinental spread, American intelligence and Western anti-terror agencies in general are still finding it almost impossible to obtain inside information on the cogs and levers of the al Qaeda system.
Only scrappy data available to Western intelligence
Should al Qaeda’s command decide to halt the flow of reinforcements to Afghanistan and Pakistan, for instance, and switch large numbers of new recruits to Iraq, the American officers managing the war against terror will not find out about these changes until they see the new arrivals blowing up bombs in Baghdad or reviving their presence in Anbar province. No organized flow of advance intelligence alerts feeds these commanders.
Neither are firm intelligence data available about the top command level of al Qaeda or how it functions. Details are sparse on the deployment of terrorist cells and the locations of their control centers. Little is known about their itineraries, their cash transfer conduits and their centers for distributing weapons and explosives to men in the field.
Where exactly does al Qaeda keep its laboratories for developing weapons of mass destruction such as toxins like cyanide and anthrax? And where do they hide their dirty bombs, if they have any? Are they working on any form of nuclear weapon?
Only scraps of intelligence data are available to Western intelligence agencies to work from – fragments gleaned by friendly intelligence services from interrogations of suspects and the intercepts of signals, satellite phone calls and coded messages transmitted over the Internet, some disguised behind images carried by websites belonging to unsuspecting Western companies.
Two important things have not changed since 9/11:
- Western intelligence has not been able to penetrate al Qaeda’s command level, logistical systems and intelligence branches.
- Al Qaeda’s own intelligence capabilities for planning military and terrorist operations match – and may even be superior to – those of Western intelligence.
So where does Mike McConnel get his information that al Qaeda is still aiming for the White House?
Some answers in the next article in this issue.