The threat posed by al Qaeda terrorism around the world continues to increase despite President Barack Obama’s recent claim that the central group behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks is on the path to defeat, according to U.S. and foreign counterterrorism officials and private experts.
Obama said in a speech to the National Defense University May 23 that because of the death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and most of his top aides, "we are safer."
While terrorist threats still exist, "the core of al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan is on the path to defeat," the president said.
However, a U.S. counterterrorism official said the threat posed by al Qaeda is growing. "From Africa to Pakistan, it is spreading systematically," the official said.
The official blamed the Obama administration policy of focusing its counterterrorism efforts almost exclusively on central al Qaeda.
The focus on Pakistan and Afghanistan resulted in a lack of targeted counterterrorism efforts in other locations, the official said. The official added that counterterrorism efforts have been weakened by the administration’s policy of dissociating Islam from al Qaeda and other Islamist terrorism. The policy was a key effort of John Brennan, White House counterterrorism chief during the first Obama administration. As CIA director, Brennan has expanded the policy of limiting links between Islam and terrorism at the agency.
The result is that Islamist terror groups are flourishing, posing direct threats to the United States and to U.S. interests outside the country, the official said.
That assessment is bolstered by a new report by the private Lignet intelligence group. The report made public Tuesday says the U.S. government’s overreliance on sanctions and surveillance has limited the war on terror.
The result is "a decentralized al Qaeda structure—and a much greater threat," the report said.
"Al Qaeda has transitioned from a hierarchical cell structure to a franchise organization that is now responsible for four times as many terrorist attacks a year as it was before 9/11," the report said.
"Al Qaeda training camps are now being established on the Arabian Peninsula, in Africa, countries of the former Soviet Union, and Southeast Asia."
U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Southwest Asia, including a steady series of armed drone attacks against al Qaeda leaders, have resulted in central al Qaeda moving out of the region.
York Zirke, head of Germany’s federal criminal police agency, told a conference in Russia recently that al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are shifting operations from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Syria, northern Africa, Yemen, and other countries.
"Speaking about the situation in the world, it has to be reiterated that al Qaeda and organizations associated with it are not halting their activities, but the centers of its activities have moved from the area close to the Pakistani and Afghani borders to other regions such as Syria, Northern Africa, Mali, and Yemen," Zirke said during a conference in Kazan, Russia, on June 6, according to Interfax.
The U.S. official outlined gains by al Qaeda both ideologically and operationally in expanding its reach as well as developing affiliates in key regions targeted by Islamists over the past several months.
Al Qaeda has moved rapidly to expand in parts of east, west, and north Africa, helped by the so-called Arab Spring.
A key affiliate, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, known as AQIM, and the Somalia-based al Shabaab group are the two main groups operating and expanding in Africa. The Nigerian al Qaeda group Boko Haram also emerged as a new affiliate and is posing a significant threat to the region.
About 4,000 French troops were dispatched to Mali in January to battle al Qaeda terrorists.
AQIM is expanding despite the French military intervention. A BBC report from May 29 stated that the expansion is not new. "Militants and armed radical groups have expanded and entrenched their positions throughout the Sahel and Sahara over the last decade under the umbrella of [AQIM]."
French troops announced a day later they had uncovered an AQIM bomb factory engaged in making suicide bomber vests in northern Mali.
U.S. intelligence agencies recently identified a new AQIM training base near Timbuktu in Mali. An al Qaeda training manual discovered in Mali revealed that terrorists are training with SA-7 surface-to-air missiles, the Associated Press reported.
Al Qaeda affiliates in Libya are moving into the power vacuum left by the ouster of the regime of Muammar Gadhafi. The main al Qaeda affiliate there is Ansar al Sharia, blamed for the Sept. 11, 2012, attack against the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens.
France’s government recently said Paris has become increasingly alarmed about al Qaeda activities in Libya and is considering a deployment of troops near Libya for counterterrorism operations.
French President Francois Hollande said in a speech last month that Libya-based jihadists represent the main security threat to North Africa and also to Europe. He told a reporter May 23 that the terrorist threat in Mali "began in Libya and is returning to Libya."
The concerns are based on recent intelligence reports that al Qaeda and other jihadists groups have new training camps in the southern Libyan desert.
Further east in Africa, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government is creating an environment that is allowing al Qaeda to develop in that country.
A U.S. intelligence official has said reports from Egypt identified al Qaeda groups operating Al-Azhar University in Cairo. The university is said to be a covert base for al Qaeda organizational and training activities that is developing a jihadist network made up of many different nationalities.
Al Shabaab in Somalia continues to conduct attacks, although there are signs the group is fragmented, with some armed fighting among various groups within al Shabaab. The group remains a key al Qaeda affiliate.
Attacks related to al Shabaab continue to increase, according to U.S. officials.
One particular concern for security officials are reports that al Qaeda is moving into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. A U.S. official said in May that al Qaeda elements were conducting small arms training in the mountainous areas of the Sinai Peninsula in preparation for fighting alongside jihadist rebels in Syria.
The al Qaeda affiliate in the Sinai was identified by U.S. officials as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM). The group’s logo is similar to that of al Qaeda—a black flag, an AK-47, and a globe.
Saudi Arabia has been battling the affiliate al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which tried several high-profile airline bombings against the United States. The group is led by several former inmates of the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and is very active against the government of Yemen.
Earlier this year, a leaked memorandum from Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry revealed that Riyadh is exporting al Qaeda terrorists to Syria. The memo from April 2012 disclosed that 1,239 prisoners who were to be executed were trained and sent to "jihad in Syria" in exchange for a full pardon. The prisoners included 212 Saudis and the rest were foreigners from Syria, Pakistan, Yemen, Sudan, Egypt, Jordan, Somalia, Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Iraq and included Palestinians.
Syria’s al Qaeda group is the al Nusra Front, which has emerged as the most powerful rebel group opposing the forces of the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Obama said in his National Defense University speech that the "lethal yet less capable al Qaeda affiliates" and domestic jihadists remain a threat.
"But as we shape our response, we have to recognize that the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11."
The Lignet report said the use of sanctions and financial penalties against al Qaeda produced the unintended consequence of transforming al Qaeda into a coalition of loose, localized, autonomous terror cells.
"In terms of financing, al Qaeda’s shuria or high command council, no longer plays a central role in allocating expenditures or soliciting funds," the report said. "Instead, terrorist financing has moved further into the ‘gray’ economy. Cells raise funds from a combination of charities, independent criminal ventures, and licit businesses."
Crime is now the main source of al Qaeda funds and criminal activities by the group include extortion, hijacking, theft, blackmail, the drug trade, and kidnapping for ransom.
"Counterterrorism efforts that target the financing of terrorism are a work in process," the report concludes. "The measures employed by the United States and others in the last 12 years have reshaped rather than resolved the terrorist threat. It remains to be seen if the United States will be able to in turn adapt to al Qaeda’s new and alarming franchise cell structure and finance methods."
Joseph Myers, a retired Army officer and specialist on the ideology of Islamist terror, said U.S. efforts to target and kill al Qaeda leaders have been successful. But al Qaeda affiliates are spreading "from the Horn of Africa, across North Africa and post-Gaddafi Libya into central Africa to Dagestan and like-minded bombers in Boston," he noted.
"Al Qaeda is an idea, not simply an organization and ideas are not easily ‘killed,’" Myers said in an email.
The U.S. government’s counterterrorism paradigm is misguided because the forefront of global Islamic jihad is not al Qaeda, but the Muslim Brotherhood "we are now partnering with as a matter of policy," he said.
The doctrine of Islamic jihad remains the key ideological threat that must be recognized, he said. Until that is realized, "we will continue to have national security failures of analysis and prediction and not only al Qaeda, but other Islamic jihadist groups will continue to emerge and spread," Myers said.
Fred Fleitz, a former intelligence analyst now with Lignet, said al Qaeda has shifted tactics toward "a multitude of smaller, low-probability attacks."
"This includes recruiting members behind U.S. borders through Internet-based efforts to find and radicalize ‘home grown terrorists,’" Fleitz said in an email.
"I am especially concerned about the recent plot to bomb a Toronto to New York train which was backed by al Qaeda members in Iran," Fleitz said. "This was a good example of what al Qaeda can still do."
"We are also seeing al Qaeda franchises and other Islamist groups growing in strength in Mali, Somalia, and Nigeria. Seven of nine Syrian rebel groups are Islamist and there is an al Qaeda presence in Syria."
Sebastian Gorka, a counterterrorism expert and military affairs fellow with the Foundation for Defense for Democracies, said the administration has created a narrative that asserts the United States is solely at war with the remnants of al Qaeda Central and that the group is on the decline since bin Ladin was killed.
"The rest of the national security mission in counterterrorism has been reduced to the amorphous ‘counter violent extremism' which is of course fallacious since as a nation we are not threatened by general violent extremism – Basque separatists or abortion clinic bombers – but a specific brand of religious extremism: global jihad," Gorka said in an email.
"Anything that countermands the official narrative, such as the the Fort Hood shooter or the Boston bombers, has to be undermined with labels such ‘workplace violence’ or ‘loser jihadis’ since anything else would mean that al Qaeda is very much alive and well," said Gorka, who teaches U.S. national security at Georgetown University. "This represents a politically driven distortion of objective threat assessments."