By MARK MAZZETTI and ERIC SCHMITT–
WASHINGTON – As Taliban militants push deeper into Pakistan’s settled areas, foreign operatives of Al Qaeda who had focused on plotting attacks against the West are seizing on the turmoil to sow chaos in Pakistan and strengthen the hand of the militant Islamist groups there, according to American and Pakistani intelligence officials.
One indication came April 19, when a truck parked inside a Qaeda compound in South Waziristan, in Pakistan’s tribal areas, erupted in a fireball when it was struck by a C.I.A. missile. American intelligence officials say that the truck had been loaded with high explosives, apparently to be used as a bomb, and that while its ultimate target remains unclear, the bomb would have been more devastating than the suicide bombing that killed more than 50 people at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad in September.
Al Qaeda’s leaders – a predominantly Arab group of Egyptians, Saudis and Yemenis, as well as other nationalities like Uzbeks – for years have nurtured ties to Pakistani militant groups like the Taliban operating in the mountains of Pakistan. The foreign operatives have historically set their sights on targets loftier than those selected by the local militant groups, aiming for spectacular attacks against the West, but they may see new opportunity in the recent violence.
Intelligence officials say the Taliban advances in Swat and Buner, which are closer to Islamabad than to the tribal areas, have already helped Al Qaeda in its recruiting efforts. The officials say the group’s recruiting campaign is currently aimed at young fighters across the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia who are less inclined to plan and carry out far-reaching global attacks and who have focused their energies on more immediate targets.
“They smell blood, and they are intoxicated by the idea of a jihadist takeover in Pakistan,” said Bruce O. Riedel, a former analyst for the C.I.A. who recently led the Obama administration’s policy review of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
It remains unlikely that Islamic militants could seize power in Pakistan, given the strength of Pakistan’s military, according to American intelligence analysts. But a senior American intelligence official expressed concern that recent successes by the Taliban in extending territorial gains could foreshadow the creation of “mini-Afghanistans” around Pakistan that would allow militants even more freedom to plot attacks.
American government officials and terrorism experts said that Al Qaeda’s increasing focus on a local strategy was partly born from necessity, as the C.I.A.’s intensifying airstrikes have reduced the group’s ability to hit targets in the West. The United States has conducted 17 drone attacks so far this year, including one on Saturday, according to American officials and Pakistani news accounts, compared with 36 strikes in all of 2008.
According to a Pakistani intelligence assessment provided to The New York Times in February, Al Qaeda has adapted to the deaths of its leaders by shifting “to conduct decentralized operations under small but well-organized regional groups” within Pakistan and Afghanistan. At the same time, the group has intensified its recruiting, to replace its airstrike casualties.
One of Al Qaeda’s main goals in Pakistan, the assessment said, was to “stage major terrorist attacks to create a feeling of insecurity, embarrass the government and retard economic development and political progress.”
The Qaeda operatives are foreigners inside Pakistan, and experts say that the group’s leaders, like Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, appear to be wary of claiming credit for the violence in the country, possibly creating popular backlash against the group.
“They are trying to take an Arab face off this,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University.
“If you look at Al Qaeda as a brand, they know when to broadcast the brand, as the group has done in North Africa,” Mr. Hoffman said. “And they know when to cloak the brand, as it has done in Pakistan.”
As a result, it is difficult for American officials to assess exactly which recent attacks in Pakistan are the work of Qaeda operatives. But intelligence officials say they believe that the Marriott Hotel bombing was partly planned by Usama al-Kini, a Kenyan Qaeda operative who was killed in Pakistan by a C.I.A. drone on New Year’s Day.
According to Mr. Hoffman, Al Qaeda may be trying to achieve a separate goal: getting the C.I.A. to call off its campaign of airstrikes in the tribal areas. A wave of terrorist violence could foment so much popular discontent with the government of President Asif Ali Zardari, he said, that Pakistan might then try to pressure the Obama administration to scale back its drone campaign.
For now, however, Obama administration officials say they believe that the covert airstrikes are the best tool at their disposal to strike at Al Qaeda inside Pakistan, which remains the group’s most important haven, but where large numbers of American combat forces would never be welcome.
The April 19 strike that hit what appeared to have been a truck bomb in a compound used by Al Qaeda set off an enormous secondary explosion, intelligence officials say. A second, empty truck destroyed in the same attack may also have been there to be outfitted with explosives, they say.
In another significant attack, on April 29, missiles fired from a C.I.A. Predator killed Abu Sulayman al-Jazairi, an Algerian Qaeda planner who American intelligence officials say they believe helped train operatives for attacks in Europe and the United States.
Still, officials caution that Al Qaeda has not abandoned its goal of “spectacular” attacks in the United States and Europe. According to one American counterterrorism official, the group continues to plan attacks outside its sanctuary in the tribal areas, aiming at targets in the West and elsewhere in Pakistan.
“They are opportunistic to the extent they perceive vulnerabilities with the uncertain nature of Pakistani politics and the security situation in Swat and Buner,” said the American counterterrorism official, who like other officials interviewed for this article was not authorized to speak publicly on intelligence issues. “They’re trying to exploit it.”
In meetings this past week in Washington, American and Pakistani officials discussed the possibility of limited joint operations with American Predator and Reaper drones.
Under one proposal, the United States would retain control over the firing of missiles, but it would share with the Pakistani security forces some sophisticated imagery and communications intercepts that could be relayed to Pakistani combat forces on the ground.
C.I.A. officials for months have resisted requests by Mr. Zardari to share the drone technology. In a television interview broadcast Sunday, the Pakistani leader said he would keep pressing to get his own Predator fleet.
“I’ve been asking for them, but I haven’t got a positive answer as yet,” Mr. Zardari said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“But I’m not giving up.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of drone strikes that American officials say the United States has conducted against Al Qaeda so far this year. It is 17 strikes, not 16.
Source: The New York Times