Al-Qaeda Said to Use Regional Strife to Tighten Grip in Pakistan

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 13, 2008; Page A07

Al-Qaeda has exploited recent political turmoil in Pakistan to strengthen its foothold along the country's border with Afghanistan, a top U.S. counterterrorism official said yesterday in an assessment that also warned of a heightened risk of attack during the upcoming U.S. election season.

Despite the loss of key leaders to U.S. strikes, Osama bin Laden continues to enjoy a haven in the border region and has managed to deepen alliances with a wide range of Islamist groups from South Asia to the Middle East, said Ted Gistaro, the national intelligence officer for transnational threats and an al-Qaeda expert. With the help of such allies, al-Qaeda is seeking to position terrorist operatives in the United States and other Western countries, Gistaro said.

"We assess that al-Qaeda's intent to attack the U.S. homeland remains undiminished," Gistaro said in a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Gistaro was the principal author of a "National Intelligence Estimate" report last August that described a resurgent al-Qaeda rebuilding its network inside the autonomous tribal lands in Pakistan's northwestern frontier. Such estimates represent the consensus view of U.S. intelligence agencies.

In the year since the report's release, bin Laden has been dealt numerous setbacks, particularly in Iraq, where al-Qaeda's local affiliates suffered repeated military losses as well as declining popular support. But in Pakistan, al-Qaeda's position is stronger than ever, as its Taliban allies have undermined local government forces to extend its control over the region, Gistaro said.

Al-Qaeda "now has many of the operational and organizational advantages it once enjoyed across the border in Afghanistan" before the U.S.-led invasion of that country seven years ago, Gistaro said.

The group's relative freedom has allowed it to train a new generation of recruits, including mid-level lieutenants who are moving through the ranks to replace killed or captured veterans, he said. Bin Laden appears particularly interested, Gistaro added, in finding recruits of Western origin who possess travel documents and language skills that allow them easy access to Europe and the United States.

While intelligence officials are unaware of specific plans for attacks inside the United States, they expect an increase in threats in the run-up to U.S. elections, Gistaro said. But although al-Qaeda may use the election as an excuse for an attack, there is no evidence that bin Laden hopes to tilt the race in favor of either of the two major presidential candidates, he said.

To bin Laden, "there is no difference between Democratic and Republican candidates," since, to him, both are backed by global corporations whose values al-Qaeda opposes, Gistaro said.

Gistaro's remarks coincided with an unconfirmed report of the death of al-Qaeda's top commander in Afghanistan. Mustafa Abu Al-Yazid, commonly known as Sheik Saeed, was reported by Pakistani news outlets to have been killed in a clash with Pakistani soldiers. U.S. intelligence officials said they could not confirm the report.

Also yesterday, intelligence officials were analyzing the latest audio recording from al-Qaeda's No. 2 commander, Ayman al-Zawahiri. In a rare English transmission, a man identifying himself as Zawahiri accused Pakistan's leaders of subservience to the United States.

"Let there be no doubt in your minds that dominant political forces at work in Pakistan today are competing to appease . . . the modern-day crusaders in the White House and are working to destabilize this nuclear-capable nation under the aegis of America," the recording stated.

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