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Al Qaeda More Potent Than Last Year
NY Times
August 13, 2008

WASHINGTON — Al Qaeda's success in forging close ties to Pakistani militant groups has given it an increasingly secure haven in the mountainous tribal areas of Pakistan, the American government's senior terrorism analyst said Tuesday.

Al Qaeda is more capable of attacking inside the United States than it was last year, and its cadre of senior leaders has recruited and trained "dozens" of militants capable of blending into Western society to carry out attacks, the analyst said.

The remarks Tuesday by the intelligence analyst, Ted Gistaro, were the most comprehensive assessment of the Qaeda threat by an American official since the National Intelligence Estimate issued last summer, which concluded that Al Qaeda had largely rebuilt its haven in Pakistan's tribal areas.

A year later, Mr. Gistaro said, the problem has only grown worse, in part because of a symbiotic relationship between Qaeda operatives and Pakistani militant groups based in the tribal areas.

"It is a stronger, more comfortable safe haven than it was for them a year ago," said Mr. Gistaro, who supervises all intelligence reports on terrorism at the National Intelligence Council. He made his remarks in a speech here to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Al Qaeda's growing strength inside Pakistan has in recent months prompted new discussions in the Bush administration about using special-operations troops for raids in the tribal areas — an option the White House has long resisted because of the risks.

There is also a growing recognition among senior officials that the Bush administration for years did not take the Qaeda threat in Pakistan seriously enough and relied on President Pervez Musharraf to dismantle networks of militants there.

Mr. Musharraf was in control of Pakistan's army and intelligence services until elections in February put a civilian government led by his opponents in charge in Islamabad.

Last year, senior Bush administration officials said much of Al Qaeda's resurgence was made possible by a disastrous cease-fire that Mr. Musharraf brokered with tribal leaders in September 2006.

Yet the grim intelligence assessment Mr. Gistaro presented on Tuesday indicated that American spy agencies believed that the Qaeda threat metastasized long after that cease-fire ended.

In the past several days, militants have forced Pakistani troops to beat a hasty retreat from a Taliban stronghold in the tribal areas. Pakistani forces had tried to recapture a strategic military post in Bajaur, an area where Al Qaeda has forged particularly close ties with local militants.

American military and intelligence officials believe that Pakistani militant networks are engaged in an increasingly violent campaign inside Afghanistan, attacking American and coalition troops as well as civilian targets like the Indian Embassy in Kabul, which a suicide bomber attacked last month.

American spy agencies have also concluded that officers in Pakistan's powerful Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, which has long maintained ties to militants in the tribal areas, helped carry out the embassy bombing.

Mr. Gistaro did not address the ISI's relationship with Pakistani militants.

He did, however, cite a number of senior Qaeda leaders who had been killed in recent months as evidence of progress in the American-led campaign against Osama bin Laden's network.

Last month, American officials said a missile fired from a Predator drone operated by the Central Intelligence Agency had killed Abu Khabab al-Masri, an Egyptian explosives expert who was operating in Pakistan's tribal areas.

At the same time, Mr. Gistaro said that Al Qaeda had "replenished its bench" with a more diverse group of operatives, many from North Africa and the Levant, as opposed to the cadre of Egyptians and Saudis who have historically dominated the group's upper ranks.

Mr. Gistaro said that Al Qaeda had trained several dozen operatives in Pakistani camps who would be capable of attacks against Western targets; but he said that American intelligence agencies were not aware of any "specific, credible plots" to attack inside the United States.

With the election and inauguration of a new president coming up, Mr. Gistaro said, intelligence officials expect a surge in threat reporting about possible domestic attacks.

Any Qaeda attack timed to the election would be aimed at wreaking havoc, rather than influencing the balloting in a particular direction, he said.

"There is no intelligence that suggests to me that Al Qaeda has a preferred candidate in our upcoming election," Mr. Gistaro said.

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