WASHINGTON, Sept. 14, 2011 — As U.S. and allied forces dismantle the core of al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, intelligence officials are studying the degree to which terrorist splinter groups are working together, Defense Department officials said today.
“They’ll remain a concern,” one of three Defense Department officials told Pentagon reporters during an afternoon background briefing to explain the nature of regionalized, radical Islamist groups that have proliferated in the Middle East and North Africa. “There is an element of defeating the organization … that is separate from the ideological component. You can get them to be operationally incapable, but that doesn’t destroy the idea of al-Qaida.”
Al-Qaida maintains a reduced funding stream, still provides training, and is “intent on transnational attacks,” an official said. “They’ll remain a concern, but these regional nodes are the way of the future.”
In a congressional hearing yesterday, CIA Director David H. Petreaus called al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula “the most dangerous regional node in the global jihad.”
The group has strengthened in Yemen, but so, too, has the national government in its counterterrorism measures, an official in today’s background briefing said. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula secured a foothold in the southern province of Abyan when a political revolution took hold in the country last spring. The national government, in recent weeks, has refocused its military forces away from domestic turmoil to lead a strong counteroffensive against the terrorist group in Abyan.
“That’s a good sign,” the official said, noting that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has plotted sophisticated attacks against the United States. “They’re intent on external operations and brag about it,” he added, noting that an English-language magazine the group publishes contains articles that teach bomb-making skills and encourage terrorism against the United States.
The officials confirmed that terrorist groups also are trying to gain hold in Libya, where the Libyan Transition National Council recently drove Moammar Gadhafi from power. “They’re always looking for a target of opportunity,” one official said.
So far, however, the council has rejected them, the officials said. “It certainly seems that they have gone to great lengths to disassociate themselves,” one official said of the council.
Terrorist groups have expanded in other parts of North Africa, though, including al Shabaab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, an Algerian-based group believed to be working with Tehrik‑e Taliban Pakistan. “We’ve definitely seen the cross-pollination of TTP and AQIM,” an official said.
These groups form temporary alliances, but mostly are focused on their own regional issues and have not formed large mergers, the officials said.
“These groups have more differences in their foundations and ideologies than commonalities,” the senior official said. “But they do make these temporary alliances of convenience, and they have common enemies.”
He said he is optimistic it will stay that way.
“I wouldn’t go down this ‘Legion of Doom’ theory, where they’re all going to sort of join hands,” the senior official said. “The timing doesn’t work for them, and they go back on their own.”
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