Chapter 1. Strategic Assessment

Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism
August 5, 2010

In 2009, al-Qa’ida’s core in Pakistan remained the most formidable terrorist organization targeting the U.S. homeland. It has proven to be an adaptable and resilient terrorist group whose desire to attack the United States and U.S. interests abroad remains strong. The U.S. intelligence community assessed that al-Qa’ida was actively engaged in operational plotting against the United States and continued recruiting, training, and deploying operatives, including individuals from Western Europe and North America. Moreover, al-Qa’ida continued to try to expand its operational capabilities by partnering with other terrorist groups, with varying degrees of success.

Nevertheless, al-Qa’ida suffered several significant setbacks in 2009. The group remained under pressure in Pakistan due to Pakistani military operations aimed at eliminating militant strongholds in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Although al-Qa’ida has collaborated with the Taliban insurgency against the Pakistani government by providing technical know-how and disseminating propaganda, the group continued to suffer leadership losses. As a result, al-Qa’ida found it tougher to raise money, train recruits, and plan attacks outside of the region. In addition to these operational setbacks, al-Qa’ida continued to fail in its efforts to carry out the attacks that would shake governments in the Muslim world.

Finally, al-Qa’ida’s core continued to suffer from popular Muslim disaffection due to recent and past indiscriminate targeting of Muslims by its operatives and allies in Algeria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Indonesia, and elsewhere. Consequently, the number of conservative clerics and former militants speaking out against the organization increased. Al-Qa’ida spokesmen responded ineffectively to this criticism by arguing that the organization does not target Muslims, demonstrating both their concern about its resonance and their inability to counter such criticism effectively.

Yet despite these setbacks, the al-Qa’ida threat was more dispersed than in recent years, which partially offset the losses suffered by al-Qa’ida’s core. The attempted December 25th bombing of a U.S. commercial airliner demonstrated that at least one al-Qa’ida affiliate has developed not just the desire but also the capability to launch a strike against the United States. Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula[1] has already shown itself to be a formidable threat to Yemen’s internal security, with attacks on the Yemeni security services, as well as a threat to Saudi Arabia, with an August 2009 attempted assassination against the head of counterterrorism in Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammed bin Nayif. The attempted December 25 bombing provided a further reminder that un- or under-governed spaces can serve as an incubator for extremism and underscored that we cannot expect al-Qa’ida affiliates to be focused solely on the near enemy – the governments in their own countries and regions – or American facilities in their immediate surroundings.

Al-Qai’da’s other most active affiliates were in Africa. In the sparsely populated Sahel, operatives from al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb kidnapped foreigners, sometimes working with individual local tribesmen and nomads. Its operations along under-governed borders posed challenges to coordinated state responses. In Somalia, al-Qa’ida’s allies in al-Shabaab controlled significant tracts of territory and several al-Shabaab leaders have publically proclaimed loyalty to al-Qaida.

Despite their failure at broad mobilization, another respect in which al-Qa’ida and violent Sunni radicals continued to succeed was in persuading people to adopt their cause, even in the United States. Five Americans from Virginia were arrested in Pakistan on suspicion of terrorist ties. Some Americans have traveled to Somalia for one reason or another and ultimately joined al-Shabaab. Najibullah Zazi, a U.S. lawful permanent resident and airport shuttle driver, trained in Pakistan and now faces charges in federal court for allegedly planning to set off several bombs in the United States. An American citizen, David Headley, has pleaded guilty in a U.S. court to crimes relating to his role in the November 2008 Lashkar e-Tayyiba attacks in Mumbai, which killed more than 160 people – including six Americans – and to crimes relating to a separate plot to bomb the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. And there is also the case of Nidal Hasan who is facing charges for the Fort Hood attack that killed 13 people and wounded 30 others on November 5, 2009.

The Lashkar e-Tayyiba connection has added a further dimension to the terrorist threat landscape since its activities have made clear its deepening commitment to undertake bold, mass-casualty operations against American and other Western targets. Since the 2008 Mumbai attack, analysts have deepening concern that it could evolve into a genuine global threat. Headley and others indicate the diversity, mobility, and versatility of self-selecting recruits whom organizations can pick to meet strategic goals. Organizations may set these goals, but their training resources and recruits are increasingly modular and interchangeable.

Not only have there been more cases of Americans becoming operatives for foreign terrorist organizations, we have also seen U.S. citizens rise in prominence as proponents of violent extremism. The most notable is al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s Anwar al-Aulaqi, who has become an influential voice of Islamist radicalism among English-speaking extremists. The alleged Ft. Hood attacker Nidal Hasan sought him out for guidance, and the December 25 bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, visited him at least twice in Yemen. Also popular among English-speaking extremists is Omar Hammami from Alabama, now one of the chief propagandists for al-Shabaab.

Compounding the threat of terrorist organizations is the active or tacit support of states. Iran has long been the foremost state sponsor of terrorism, supporting Hizballah, HAMAS, and other rejectionist Palestinian groups as proxies for their own interests in the Arab world. Iran’s financial, material, and logistic support for terrorist and militant groups throughout the Middle East and Central Asia had a direct impact on international efforts to promote peace, threatened economic stability in the Gulf, jeopardized the tenuous peace in southern Lebanon, and undermined the growth of democracy. Syria also provided political and material support to Hizballah in Lebanon and allowed Iran to resupply this organization with weapons, and provided safe-haven as well as political and other support to a number of designated Palestinian terrorist groups, including HAMAS, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC).

Looking ahead, there is ample reason to be concerned about demographic and technological trends in countries where terrorism is already endemic. The youth population throughout South Asia and the Middle East is rapidly expanding, bringing the prospect of increasing numbers of at risk young people. Europe may continue to be a fertile recruitment ground for extremists if sizable numbers of recent immigrants and, in particular, second- and third-generation Muslims continue to experience integration problems and feel alienated by governments’ domestic and foreign policies. These prospects underscore the need to look beyond the immediate – and genuinely pressing – challenges of tactical counterterrorism toward the longer term developments shaping the threat environment of the future.

As for technological trends, terrorist groups and their sympathizers have expressed interest in using cyber means to target the United States. They have not been successful to date. Terrorists have used cyber means to transfer funds, but international action has made significant progress towards addressing this illicit activity. Most major terrorist groups have propaganda websites and forums. Al-Qa’ida continued its efforts to encourage key regional affiliates and jihadist networks to pursue a global agenda, using both the Internet as a means to distribute propaganda and telecommunications infrastructure to plan attacks and coordinate movements. Going forward, this will be an area of continued focus for the United States.

[1] On January 19, 2010, the Secretary of State designated al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) under Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, as amended (INA). The Secretary also designated AQAP and its two top leaders Nasir al-Wahishi and Said al-Shihri under E.O. 13224. AQAP is a Yemen-based terrorist organization that has claimed responsibility for numerous terrorist acts against Saudi, Korean, Yemeni, and U.S. targets since its inception in January 2009. Such instances include a March 2009 suicide bombing against South Korean tourists in Yemen, the August 2009 attempt to assassinate Saudi Prince Muhammad bin Nayif, and the December 25, 2009 failed attack on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, Michigan.