An evolving terrorist safe haven. This paper outlines how the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region emerged as al-Qaeda’s central operational hub for plotting attacks in the West after 9/11 through the eyewitness accounts of Western militants who allegedly received terrorist training in the region. Their interrogation reports and statements shed significant light on the evolving nature of the terrorist safe haven, the recruitment pipeline transporting Western militants to the region, and al-Qaeda’s continued efforts to use such recruits -- more valuable than any other -- for attacks in the West.
The threat from terrorism made in Pakistan. In a majority of the serious terrorist plots against the homelands of Western countries since 2004, plotters were either directed or trained by established jihadist groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, demonstrating the sustained threat to the West posed by the terrorist safe haven. In 38 percent of the serious terrorist plots in the West during this period, al-Qaeda or an allied group in Pakistan provided operational direction to plotters. High priority and more resources should be given to reducing their safe haven in Pakistan.
Al-Qaeda’s adaptability. Although al-Qaeda’s capabilities have been degraded by an intensified drone campaign in the tribal areas of Pakistan, the eyewitness accounts of Western recruits suggest that al-Qaeda has to a significant degree successfully adapted by decentralizing its operational structures. That has allowed the terrorist group to continue to offer Western militants sophisticated bomb-making instruction.
The growing threat from al-Qaeda’s affiliates. In recent years jihadist groups allied with al-Qaeda in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region have increasingly plotted attacks in the West themselves, partly because they have become more closely ideologically aligned with al-Qaeda and partly out of a calculation that such attacks will boost their prestige. In the last two years more Western recruits appear to have joined these groups than al-Qaeda itself, offering them growing opportunities to send operatives back to the West to launch attacks.
The persistent threat from al-Qaeda's safe haven in North Waziristan. Many of the most threatening terrorist plots against the West in recent years have been hatched by terrorists in North Waziristan. Despite intensified drone strikes, terrorist groups have continued to operate in North Waziristan with relative impunity, because pro-al-Qaeda militants control the ground. Until the Pakistani army extends its military offensive in South Waziristan to North Waziristan, the area is likely to remain ground zero for al-Qaeda plots against the West. Half a decade after al-Qaeda operatives orchestrated a plot using British recruits trained in North Waziristan that could have killed more than 1,500, on-the-ground realities have changed little, and al-Qaeda continues to have the opportunity to plot attacks of similar ambition.
To download a PDF of this executive summary, click here. For the full policy paper, click here.
Paul Cruickshank, an alumni fellow at the NYU Center on Law and Security, is currently working on a CNN series on the U.S. domestic terrorism threat.