Secure in its haven in northwestern Pakistan, a resurgent Al Qaeda is trying to expand its network, in some cases by executing corporate-style takeovers of regional Islamic extremist groups, according to U.S. intelligence officials and counter-terrorism experts. Though not always successful, these moves indicate a shift in strategy by the terrorist network as it seeks to broaden its reach and renew its ability to strike Western targets, including the United States, officials and experts say.
"Certainly we do see Al Qaeda trying to influence the broader movement and to control some of these affiliates in a more direct way," said a senior counter-terrorism official in the Bush administration. "The word I would use is 'co-opt' . . . as opposed to simply associating with or encouraging. By that I mean target selection, types of attacks, methodology, funding, all of the things that would make an affiliate suddenly a subsidiary."
U.S. officials say these liaisons combine Al Qaeda's money, training, finely honed tactics and muscle with the widespread support and participation that the local and regional groups enjoy from within their communities.
Some of those groups have jumped at the chance to align themselves with the Al Qaeda "brand name," which has soared in popularity because of its increasingly sophisticated multimedia campaigns and widespread opposition to U.S. foreign policy, particularly the war in Iraq, the officials and private experts say.
In other words, Al Qaeda has become more than a name that sympathetic groups launch attacks under. It's becoming more of an umbrella organization that provides funding and guidance to affiliated terrorist groups that still operate largely independently, though less and less so. This is an extremely alarming development, and Al Qaeda has been permitted to do this largely because it's operating freely in Pakistan's western provinces. The great irony is that it is the fear of Al Qaeda that war supporters use to argue that we stay in Iraq, and yet it is in Iraq where Al Qaeda has been mostly rebuffed. Our concern should not be Al Qaeda in Iraq, but the cells already operating in other countries that are eager to ally themselves with Al Qaeda in exchange for money, weapons and guidance. One more note:
Al Qaeda is also trying to forge closer alliances with clan-based militants in Somalia, who are fighting the U.S.-backed transitional government there, and in Yemen, Bin Laden's ancestral homeland, current and former U.S. officials said.
Now, imagine we had taken a different course of action with Somalia, electing to treat their ICU as the legitimate government instead of encouraging Ehtiopia to intervene. Do you think Al Qaeda's pernicious influence would be welcome in a country where the Islamists already rule and would prefer legitimacy as opposed to affiliation with a notorious terrorist group? The answer is clearly no. And yet by allowing Ethiopia to topple the government and install an unpopular and illegitimate regime in it's place, we've given Al Qaeda an entry into Somalia among an unhappy and repressed populace, all in the name of the "war on terror." Our short-sighted and unintelligible foreign policy choices have done more to further Al Qaeda's goals than anything the terrorist group could do themselves. It's long past time to acquire some sense and rationality in battling Al Qaeda, or we will find ourselves facing the dire and very real threat of more attacks here at home.