Al-Qaeda in Iraq already has its hands full, but US intelligence officials say the militant group’s mentors in Pakistan now want to use its formidable resources for attacks on the United States.
The war in Iraq has transformed the Al-Qaeda affiliate into a battle-hardened organization with piles of money, sophisticated recruiting networks and some of the world’s most experienced and innovative bomb makers, officials and analysts say.
A US intelligence estimate released this week said Al-Qaeda “core,” the parent organization led by Osama bin Laden, “will seek to leverage” those capabilities for attacks on the United States.
It offered no evidence that Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is actively involved in such plots, however, and intelligence and military officials say most of its resources are currently tied down in Iraq.
But Ted Gistaro, the assessment’s author, told reporters this week that Al-Qaeda typically tries to tap into its affiliates’ networks, recruitment pool and financial resources.
“Certainly when it comes to finances, we’ve seen Al-Qaeda pull benefit from the relationship with AQI,” he said. “And the concern is: what other parts of AQI might Al-Qaeda core try to leverage or siphon off to bolster its own capabilities?”
Analysts say the concern raised in the assessment is new, and may reflect undisclosed intelligence of messages from Al-Qaeda core urging AQI to carry out operations in Europe or the United States.
In late April, the Pentagon revealed it had captured a senior Al-Qaeda operative, Abd al Hadi al-Iraqi, as he was trying to reach Iraq to manage Al-Qaeda operations and possibly plot attacks in the west.
“Al-Qaeda in Pakistan is clearly trying to inspire AQI to use its people and resources to mount attacks where they want,” said a US counter-terrorism official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
AQI offers two things: money and an elaborate recruiting network, said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer now with the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
“The Al-Qaeda operation and the insurgency in Iraq is so popular in the Muslim world that there is pretty good evidence that AQ in Iraq is awash in money, that it has more than it can spend,” he said.
Its recruiting networks “can also be reverse engineered so you could use them to train someone, send them back to their home, and then use that person for an operation against a target in Europe, in the Middle East, and conceivably, if they have the right passports, against the United States,” he said.
No major attacks have occurred in the United States since September 11, 2001, and Al-Qaeda faces an array of security measures erected since then.
But the director of national intelligence, Michael McConnell, said this week that Al-Qaeda is “working as hard as they can to position trained operatives here in the United States.”
Recruits with the right language skills and background to fit into the US population are being brought to Al-Qaeda’s safe haven in Pakistan for training, he said.
Al-Qaeda has used Pakistanis with British passports for operations in Britain, and is trying to recruit operatives with French and Belgian passports through its affiliates in North Africa.
Intelligence officials said they worry about Al-Qaeda operatives entering the United States through a “European gateway.”
But White House Homeland Security Adviser Fran Townsend told US television Sunday that the United States is pleased with Pakistan’s cooperation in helping to forestall such a strike.
“We believe Pakistan has been a very good ally in the war on terrorism,” she told CNN.
“Musharraf has been the subject of numerous assassination attempts. Al-Qaeda is trying to kill him. They get what the problem is, and we’re working with them to deny Al-Qaeda and the Taliban the safe haven” on the Afghanistan border.
A top US commander said it would be difficult for Al-Qaeda in Iraq to export violence outside of Iraq for now because of the blows dealt by recent US offensives.
“There might be people who have come in here for short periods of time that were foreigners that left here that might try to conduct some attacks,” said Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, the number two US commander in Iraq.
“There’s an attempt here (in Iraq) by the leadership of Al-Qaeda to create a training area and a place where they can recruit and train people in the Middle East, and that’s why they would like us to fail here,” he said.