John J. Bumpkin,WASHINGTON, AP
Al-Qaida’s loss of its sanctuary in Afghanistan has led to an increase in extremist activity in other countries, as Osama bin Laden’s scattered operatives turn to foreign affiliates to plan new terrorist attacks, a U.S. administration official said Saturday. “They’ve been forced to scatter or hunker down,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “They are trying to adapt and accommodate as best they can.” The official said coordination across the al-Qaida network of affiliates appears limited — that surviving al-Qaida operatives are simply turning to their only remaining option to continue the fight. These affiliated groups, in Sunni Muslim countries in North Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, have historically sent fighters for training in bin Laden’s Afghan camps. Some trainees became “card carrying” al-Qaida members; others returned to join their native groups. But bin Laden’s group maintains contacts with many of its affiliates, sometimes providing financing, weapons and expertise. Some of these affiliates are separatist movements trying to carve out an Islamic nation within an existing country, such as Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines. Others, like the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan or the Egyptian al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya, strive to overthrow an existing secular regime and replace it with an Islamic government. Still others, such as Jemaah Islamiyah in Southeast Asia, more closely resemble al-Qaida, plotting attacks across international borders. Since the war in Afghanistan, U.S. intelligence officials say they have observed a flattening out of al-Qaida’s command structure. They say midlevel operatives are being left to their own terror planning in the absence of direct leadership from bin Laden and his inner circle. Officials said the likely result would be more frequent, but less sophisticated, terrorist attacks than those bin Laden is known for. Instead of meticulously planned al Qaida strikes, terrorist attacks would be expected to be thrown together hastily and with local resources. They also would be more likely to take place against U.S. interests on foreign soil, probably in the home country of a particular affiliate group, than in the United States. The loss of some of bin Laden’s top lieutenants has contributed to the decentralization of the terror threat, officials have said. Mohammed Atef, bin Laden’s top military commander, was killed by a U.S. military and CIA airstrike in November. Operations chief Abu Zubaydah, whom officials say had a hand in the Sept. 11 planning, was captured in Pakistan in March. Other leaders, like bin Laden and top deputy Ayman al-Zawahri, remain at large. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, another operational planner whom officials believe masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks, continues to plot terrorist strikes, U.S. counterterrorism officials said. Of these surviving card-carrying al-Qaida operatives, many have gone to Pakistan, officials said. Some are in the cities, including the operatives who worked with American Jose Padilla in Lahore and Karachi before his capture in Chicago. Others are believed to be in the remote tribal belt of Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan. Recent al Qaida plots that have come to light are varied in target and method of attack: — Three Saudi al-Qaida members were arrested in Morocco for plotting to bomb U.S. and British warships crossing the Straits of Gibraltar between Morocco and Spain, Moroccan authorities announced this week. — A Sudanese man in foreign custody acknowledged trying to shoot down a U.S. military aircraft taking off from an air base in Saudi Arabia in recent weeks. — The April 11 truck bombing of a synagogue in Tunisia has been tied to al Qaida. — A plot to detonate a radiological weapon — or “dirty bomb” — in Washington, D.C., was stopped in its planning stages with the May 8 arrest of Padilla, described by officials as a protege of Abu Zubaydah. — Who is responsible for Friday’s truck bombing outside the U.S. consulate in Karachi remains unclear. Early suspicion has centered on al-Qaida or Pakistani militant groups. Those Pakistani groups have ties to al-Qaida but could have acted without its sanction.