During testimony before the House Committee on Homeland Security on July 25, National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) director Matthew Olsen testified that while al Qaeda’s central leadership in Pakistan has been “diminished,” the overall terrorist threat remains “resilient, adaptive, and persistent.”
Olsen highlighted the threat from al Qaeda’s affiliates around the globe. “To varying degrees,” Olsen’s written testimony reads, “these groups coordinate their activities and follow the direction of [al Qaeda] leaders in Pakistan.” While much of the commentary in the West focuses on the terror network’s international threat, Olsen made it clear that al Qaeda’s affiliates are “multidimensional, blurring the lines between terrorist group, insurgency, and criminal gang.”
Al Qaeda’s “affiliates and adherents” are “from an array of countries, including Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, Iraq and Iran,” Olsen testified. The inclusion of Iran on Olsen’s list is noteworthy. While it is widely accepted that al Qaeda has an established presence in each of the other countries, al Qaeda’s network inside Iran is still poorly understood.
In July 2011, the US Treasury Department designated the head of al Qaeda’s network in Iran, known as Yasin al Suri, saying that his network operates “under an agreement between al Qaeda and the Iranian government.” In December 2011, the Treasury and State Departments offered a $10 million reward for information leading to al Suri’s capture. And earlier this year, the Treasury Dept. designated Iran’s intelligence service for supporting al Qaeda and its affiliate, al Qaeda in Iraq.
Olsen did not offer any additional details about al Qaeda’s network in Iran.
In Iraq, al Qaeda’s affiliate was thought to be on the ropes but has made a resurgence in recent months. “Since the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq late last year,” Olsen testified, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) “has conducted numerous high-profile attacks there and this year has carried out coordinated country-wide attacks against government, security, and Shia civilian targets.”
AQI has supported “global extremism” in its media statements, Olsen continued, and has also cheered on “uprisings against secular governments in the Middle East and North Africa.” AQI has noted its “solidarity with the Syrian Sunni population” as well. Indeed, AQI-affiliated groups operate inside Syria and have been blamed for a series of suicide attacks there.
Olsen also highlighted two AQI-related developments that may have ramifications outside of the Middle East. In January 2011, AQI “published an explosives training video that called for lone wolf attacks in the West and against so-called apostate regimes in the Middle East.” Olsen also pointed to the arrests of several AQI supporters in North America as indicative of a “potential threat posed” to the US.
At least one other al Qaeda affiliate undoubtedly has the US homeland in its crosshairs. The Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) “remains the affiliate most likely to attempt and carry out transnational attacks, including against the United States,” according to the NCTC director. While the death of al Qaeda ideologue Anwar al Awlaki “probably temporarily slowed AQAP’s external plotting efforts,” Olsen pointed out, it “did not deter the group from attempting another aviation attack in May.”
Awlaki’s Inspire magazine, which he published with the “now-deceased Samir Khan,” lives on, too. While the NCTC believes their deaths have “affected the quality of the magazine,” the web publication still “endures and continues to reach a global audience of violent extremists.”
Turning to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Boko Haram, Olsen argued that the African groups “remain focused on local and regional attack plotting, including targeting Western interests in Nigeria,” but have “shown minimal interest in targeting the US Homeland.”
The NCTC sees Shabaab, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia, and “its foreign fighter cadre as a potential threat to the United States.” The NCTC believes the group has its hands full fighting Kenyan and Ethiopian forces inside Somalia. Still, Shabaab “leaders publicly have called for transnational attacks, including threatening to avenge the January death of British national and [Shabaab] senior foreign fighter Bilal Berjawi.”
Turning to South Asia, Olsen testified that groups such as Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), the Haqqani Network, and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) “continue to pose a direct threat to US interests and our allies in the region, where these groups probably will remain primarily focused.” The NCTC is watching “for signs that any of these groups, networks, or individuals are actively pursuing or have decided to incorporate operations outside of South Asia as a strategy to achieve their objectives.” The TTP’s failed May 2010 Times Square bombing demonstrates that the group already has the intent to target the US.
The NCTC assesses that LeT leaders “almost certainly recognize that an attack in the United States would bring intense international backlash upon Pakistan and endanger the group’s safehaven there.” But there are causes for concern, including the LeT’s provision of “training to a wide range of Pakistani and Western militants, some of whom could plot terrorist attacks in the West without direction from” LeT leaders. And, Olsen argued, LeT “members frustrated with the group’s focus on South Asia likewise could leave [LeT] to join a more globally focused group like al Qaeda.”
In fact, LeT has cooperated with al Qaeda for years. For instance, documents captured inside Osama bin Laden’s safe house reportedly show that al Qaeda helped LeT plan the 2008 attacks in Mumbai. One of the captured Mumbai plotters has claimed that al Qaeda trained the LeT terrorists responsible for the siege.
Olsen issued a warning, of sorts, with respect to the war in Afghanistan.
Senior al Qaeda “leaders almost certainly recognize that the Coalition drawdown in Afghanistan presents an opportunity for the group to reconstitute in parts of the country,” Olsen wrote. The “impending withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan,” as well as ongoing conflicts elsewhere, “may provide” al Qaeda’s core leadership with “a propaganda opportunity to claim victories over the US and reinvigorate its image as the leader of the global movement.”
Al Qaeda and affiliated organizations already have a significant presence in Afghanistan. Based on an examination of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) press releases dating back to March 2007, The Long War Journal has been able to detect the presence of al Qaeda and affiliated groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), in 114 different districts and in 25 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
“America’s campaign against terrorism did not end with the mission at Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan,” Olsen stated. “More than a decade after the September 11th attacks, we remain at war with al Qaeda.”
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.