ISLAMABAD — A decade after the 9/11 attacks, most international terrorist plots against the West have links to Pakistan, the country that became al Qaida's most important sanctuary after the United States chased the terrorist group from Afghanistan.
Pakistan wasn't considered an international terrorist haven before December 2001, when Osama bin Laden crossed the White Mountains from Tora Bora, his last redoubt in Afghanistan, into Pakistan's tribal area.
In the nearly 10 years since, however, the country has become al Qaida's global headquarters, infecting Pakistan's Islamic extremist groups with a new nihilistic ideology and transforming the country's tribal area near the border with Afghanistan into the epicenter of global jihad, a violent sanctuary where the traditional population is terrorized and al Qaida and other terrorists plot attacks not just against the West and U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan but also against the Pakistani government itself.
Analysts say that U.S. officials, distracted by the war in Iraq, didn't recognize until 2008 the danger that was developing in Pakistan, after which they began hugely ramping up their campaign of pilotless drone airstrikes in the tribal area.
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U.S. officials now claim that al Qaida is close to what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta calls "strategic defeat." But while there have been no successful al Qaida attacks in the West since the London transit system was bombed on July 7, 2005, Islamic extremist attacks are frequent and deadly in Pakistan, a failing nuclear-armed country of 180 million people.
Earlier this week, at least 25 people were killed in a twin suicide bombing in the western city of Quetta that targeted the local deputy commander of Pakistan's paramilitary Frontier Corps. It was the latest in some 260 suicide bombings that have struck Pakistan since 2001.
Al Qaida has developed a crucial relationship with Pakistan's most ferocious local terrorist group, Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, often known as the Pakistani Taliban, which is based in the tribal areas, where federal authority traditionally has been limited. Without this group, al Qaida might not survive.
"For al Qaida to survive, can it afford to lose Pakistan? Of course not," said Noman Benotman, a former Libyan jihadist who once worked with the al Qaida leadership. "The problem now is that the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaida work very closely together."
"The Pakistani Taliban is like the sea and al Qaida is like fish. To swim, they need the sea," said Benotman, who's now a senior analyst at the Quilliam Foundation, a London-based anti-extremist campaigning organization.
Al Qaida "central" has been badly weakened in Pakistan. American drone strikes have killed 24 mid- and senior-level commanders of the core organization since January 2008, including two men then considered to be number three in the leadership, Abu Laith al Libi in 2008 and Mustafa Abu al Yazid last year, according to a tally kept by New America Foundation, an independent research organization in Washington. Last month, a drone strike killed al Qaida's new deputy chief, Atiyah Abd al Rahman.
Pakistani authorities, often working with the CIA, have arrested a host of al Qaida commanders, including the self-confessed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, captured from the northwest city of Rawalpindi in 2003, another third in command, Abu Faraj al Libi, from Rawalpindi in 2005, and this year Umar Patek, an Indonesian militant said to be behind the 2002 Bali bombing.
This week, Pakistani security forces arrested the group's international chief, Younis al Mauritania, in Quetta, which may have prompted the suicide attack on the Frontier Corps commander. Information from Mauritania's interrogation also may have prompted the terrorism alert that U.S. officials declared Thursday.
Pakistani officials claim to have arrested more than 450 al Qaida operatives since 2001, easily the highest number detained anywhere.
Even with U.S. drone aircraft constantly buzzing over Waziristan — the part of the tribal area most important to extremists — and an American spy network on the ground, as well as the presence of more than 100,000 Pakistani security personnel, the tribal area still appears to be al Qaida's most important haven. Apart from al Rahman, two other senior commanders reportedly were killed in drone strikes this year in the tribal area: Pakistani extremist Ilyas Kashmiri and Abu Zaid al Iraqi, an al Qaida financier.
According to Panetta, Ayman al Zawahiri, bin Laden's successor, is somewhere in the tribal area. Of the 20 or so key al Qaida leaders still at large, most are very likely in Pakistan, including Saif al Adel, al Qaida's long-term military commander, whom the Iranian government reportedly held for years but released last year in exchange for a diplomat who'd been kidnapped in Pakistan.
Others most likely operating from Pakistan include Abu Yahya al Libi, a leading al Qaida ideologue, Adam Yahiye Gadahn, an American said to run al Qaida's media arm, and Adnan Gulshair el Shukrijumah, who grew up in the U.S. and whom some consider the organization's operations chief.
Pakistan, in particular the tribal area, continues to be where would-be terrorist recruits make contact with al Qaida and other extremist groups, and get training and financing. This week's 9/11 anniversary terrorism alert for New York and Washington was over a plot said to have originated in the tribal area.
Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan-American who was arrested in 2009 on suspicion of plotting to bomb the New York subway, attended a weapons and explosives training camp in Pakistan the previous year and had met with Shukrijumah.
Last year, Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad was arrested after a failed car bombing in Times Square. It later emerged that he'd met with the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal area and received bomb-making training there.
A study for the New America Foundation found that of 21 "serious" terrorist plots against targets in the West in the six-year period since 2004, more than half either were directed by al Qaida or its allies in Pakistan or the plotters had been trained in Pakistan.
Perhaps as serious as the presence of terrorists, however, is the impact that al Qaida and Islamic extremists have had on the perception of the U.S. and the West in Pakistan.
Anti-Western propaganda, which blames the United States and Europe for all ills, has become mainstream opinion in Pakistan, where surveys show that many don't believe that the 9/11 attacks happened, or think that America staged them.
"You can defeat an enemy in numbers, but you can't defeat an ideology," said Imtiaz Gul, the author of the book "The Most Dangerous Place: Pakistan's Lawless Frontier." "In Pakistan, lots of people sympathize with al Qaida. This is a very poorly governed country with porous borders, and it's plagued by the politics of expediency. There are plenty of places for extremists to hide."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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