From Detroit to Afghanistan, scattered terrorists inspired and equipped by al-Qaida have attacked recently with surprising speed and worldwide reach, challenging the U.S. strategy of slowly and deliberately targeting the terror group's top leaders.
Counterterror officials and other experts say the botched Christmas Day airliner bombing and the Dec. 30 assault at a CIA base in Afghanistan demonstrate that al-Qaida and its supporters can react quickly when opportunities arise.
The new attacks, plotted by local militants as opposed to al-Qaida's core group, also warn of the possibility of new mini-fronts in the war on terrorism that could stretch American resources even more thinly across the globe. They come as U.S. forces are focusing on the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Qaida in Pakistan.
Al-Qaida's adaptability contrasts with the comparatively plodding pace of the U.S. military buildup in Afghanistan, which will take almost a full year. As the U.S. moves in, the terror group moves on.
The recent attacks, "are not necessarily evidence of a resurgent or more sophisticated al-Qaida, but of them taking advantage of targets of opportunity as they present themselves," said Matthew Levitt, a counterterrorism and intelligence expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies.
The airliner attack in Detroit appears to have been fermenting only since October, and the suicide bombing at the CIA base also appears to have been put together relatively quickly — over a matter of months in contrast to the yearslong al-Qaida planning that went into the 9/11 attacks.
While the Pakistan-based hard core of al-Qaida has been degraded by missile strikes and other covert action since the 2001 attacks, the group is still adept at spreading propaganda and attracting new recruits.
Over the past year, Al-Qaida-linked groups in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa, spurred on by similar extremist views, have expanded beyond their regional turf wars to threaten regional governments. Now they threaten broader assaults against the West.
"Though al-Qaida as an organization remains on the ropes, with leadership, finances, and legitimacy diminished and under constant pressure, the focus and attempt by one of its regional affiliates to attack the United States directly is a dangerous development," said Juan Zarate, a senior counterterrorism official in the Bush administration who is now senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
He said the new attacks put "a premium on containing if not destroying (al-Qaida) outposts in Yemen, Somalia, and North Africa." Zarate added that the incidents also show al-Qaida's intent to strengthen its global reach, and that the direction from core al-Qaida leaders remains targeting the United States.
John Brennan, President Barack Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, said much the same thing Thursday, describing a mounting drumbeat among Yemen militants to get individuals to carry out attacks on the U.S. The airliner attack, he added, showed a new ability to move from aspiration to action.
The U.S. caught a break in this attack, which fizzled when Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly started a fire but failed to ignite explosives hidden in his clothing as the plane from Amsterdam neared Detroit.
"Al-Qaida is diminished as evidenced by the fact they are sending inexperienced individuals without long association with al-Qaida, but susceptible to jihadist ideology," said the U.S. director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, in an open letter to his work force this week. "Unfortunately, even unsophisticated terrorists can kill many Americans."
The Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for the bungled Dec. 25 attack.
Terrorists had better luck in Afghanistan, where a Jordanian double agent blew himself up, killing seven CIA personnel and wounding six. An al-Qaida leader claimed on a jihadi Internet forum that the CIA attack was retaliation for earlier deaths of the head of a Pakistani Taliban group and two al-Qaida figures. A Pakistani Taliban group linked to al-Qaida also claimed responsibility.
U.S. and British intelligence officials have warned that al-Qaida has been turning to affiliate groups outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan — including militants in unstable countries such as Yemen and Somalia. And the involvement of a Nigerian and a Jordanian in the recent plots also warn of the growing diversity of those willing to carry out terror plots.
In recent years, terror franchises such as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), concentrating on Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), aimed at Algeria and Northern Africa, have been embraced by core al-Qaida leaders.
Some weaker affiliates, such as those in Somalia and Gaza have not, and so they do not yet bear the terror group's brand name.
James Dobbins, the Bush administration's first special representative for Afghanistan after the October 2001 U.S.-led invasion, said al-Qaida is demonstrating that it is as much an idea as an organization.
"The organization can be defeated, or at least successfully contained," he said in an interview. "But this will be of only limited effect if the idea remains influential."
Richard Barrett, head of a U.N. group that monitors the threat posed by al-Qaida and the Taliban, said the Christmas Day scare should not be interpreted as a sign that al-Qaida is gaining in strength.
"That sort of attack we can expect to happen episodically over the years, but I don't think that goes against the general trend, which is that al-Qaida is becoming weaker. And certainly they have become pinned down in their main areas of operation," Barrett said in a telephone interview.
After being run out of Afghanistan by a U.S.-led invasion force following the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida lieutenants found safe haven across the border in northwestern Pakistan. Al-Qaida then strengthened its hand in Iraq following the 2003 U.S. invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, but over time its organization there was battered by the U.S.-led war.
In a report published in November, Levitt and a Washington Institute colleague, Michael Jacobson, agreed that al-Qaida's leadership is in disarray, its ideological influence in the Muslim world on the decline, its attack capacity diminished and its financial condition deteriorating.
Yet the terrorist movement, they said, remains potent — to U.S. and Western security and to the nerves of millions.
Associated Press writers Barry Schweid in Washington, Paisley Dodds in London and Kathy Gannon and Sebastian Abbot in Islamabad contributed to this report.
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