Opinion

Beyond Yemen, Awlaki: Look for core Al Qaeda members outside the hot spots

The killing of the American-born Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen is another success in fighting Al Qaeda. But core leaders of the group who are likely planning the next big attack are probably operating outside the hot spots of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and the Horn of Africa.

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The United States scored another serious blow to Al Qaeda with the killing of the extremist American-born Islamic cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, in Yemen last week. But the US and its allies should also pay attention to longtime Al Qaeda figures who are probably operating outside of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and the Horn of Africa.

True, the terrorist group is greatly diminished – especially since the spectacular raid that killed Osama bin Laden and yielded rich intelligence. Al Qaeda’s future as a global terrorist movement is in doubt.

I am concerned, however, by the significance that America and its allies ascribe to next-generation leaders recently captured or killed in Pakistan. The intelligence community knows its stuff, and has enjoyed ringing successes, but one big mystery is this: Where does senior Al Qaeda core member Saif al-Adl come into the picture? He was named as Mr. Bin Laden’s temporary replacement. Now, he apparently isn’t listed on the organizational chart of Al Qaeda's hierarchy.

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Aside from top leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mr. Adl is arguably the most experienced, senior leader remaining in the organization. He has deep chemical-biological-radiological-nuclear connections and knows the history of the terrorist group’s nuclear and biological weapons projects from day one. At the time of 9/11, the former Egyptian Army captain was regarded as the number three man in the organization – its chief of operations.

Saif al-Adl is not the only key target who has extensive experience with weapons of mass destruction. Last year, Saudi national Adnan Shukrijumah was named publicly as Al Qaeda’s external operations chief. In this role, he is responsible for planning attacks against the United States. And yet, based on the latest media reporting, Mr. Shukrijumah, who is on the FBI 10 most wanted list, also has been mysteriously bypassed on the group’s organizational chart.

Lacking insider knowledge of the latest machinations within Mr. Zawahiri’s restructuring of Al Qaeda, I can offer two explanations for this disturbing anomaly: Either Adl and Shukrijumah have been marginalized in Al Qaeda’s post-Bin Laden leadership hierarchy – or they have been replaced so they can completely dedicate themselves to planning current operations.

The latter is the most likely.

At large: key terrorists with WMD expertise

No one trying to manage an organization, meet people, recruit operatives, conduct fund raising, and run the daily business affairs of Al Qaeda is a good candidate to plan the next major attack. It simply doesn’t make sense for a group that has been so severely depleted in its senior ranks to marginalize dedicated jihadists in favor of far less experienced, unproven operatives. But it is logical that Zawahiri may have tasked his most experienced men to manage his group’s resurgence – by planning the next big thing.

I suspect Zawahiri began such planning in complete secrecy about three years ago; he announced his intention to launch another mass casualty attack in the US in his 2008 book, “Exoneration.” Now that he has taken over the reins of Al Qaeda, Zawahiri needs to establish himself as a force more than ever.

If he’s following through, the people directly involved in planning the next big attack may have been cut off long ago from vulnerable, main lines of communication. The Al Qaeda core knows that a dedicated focus and compartmentalization of an operation is the only way, in today’s hostile counterterrorism environment, to ensure the survivability of a plot.

There are not many operatives of Adl’s and Shukrijumah’s caliber in the hollowed-out Al Qaeda core, but there are enough of them to plan and carry out the next large-scale attack.

One who meets these qualifications: Abdel Aziz al-Masri, the man who led a secret project to conduct nuclear bomb-related tests in the Afghan desert in 1998. Al Qaeda’s nuclear CEO was last reported to be in Iran with Adl in mid-2003, when the group was shopping for nuclear devices, technologies, and materials.

In addition, a Pakistan nuclear specialist apparently recruited by Al Qaeda has not been identified, and is presumably at large. Recent media reports indicate a senior Al Qaeda cadre under house arrest in Iran has been allowed to leave the country, suggesting some key weapons- operatives may now be free to engage in operational planning.

There are others. A physicist trained by the University of Arizona, a financier, and Al Qaeda original member, Syrian national Mohammed Luay al-Bayazid was last reported to be in Sudan. It is alleged that he was the notetaker at the group’s founding meeting in 1988. Another University of Arizona alumnus, agronomist, and Bin Laden’s personal money man, Iraqi national Mubarek al-Duri was last said to be in Iraq circa 2004. Both are reportedly hard-core extremists with a grudge against the US.

With men like these, there is potentially sufficient critical mass to meet Zawahiri’s requirement for a few trusted, able, experienced planners.

Planning in Europe or Asia for a big attack?

Where might these men be located? Al Qaeda would not be foolish enough to use Pakistan as a planning base. Al Qaeda didn’t use Afghanistan or Pakistan to plan 9/11, when the tribal areas of Pakistan were not as hot as they are today.

The September 11 ringleader, Mohammed Atta, used the al-Quds mosque in Hamburg, Germany, to help plan, meet people, and as a staging area for the attack. There is plenty of fodder in the Hamburgs of the world to round out an operational team that would be capable of mounting a mass-casualty attack.

It is probably not a coincidence that none of the experienced Al Qaeda operatives who are likely to be involved in planning the next big thing have been in Pakistan for many years, with the exception of Shukrijumah. However, he has been variously reported in the Caribbean, South America, and elsewhere over the years.

If Zawahiri had sufficient foresight, he would relocate a few skilled operators such as Adl and Shukrijumah to areas more conducive to planning, such as Europe, Asia, or South America. In this case, capturing and killing new-generation Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan’s tribal areas will have little impact on planning for the next attack.

Would US and allied intelligence see this activity if it were occurring today? Are we taking a hard look at the possibility of a repeat of 9/11?

Taking a cue from the past, the US must assume Zawahiri will demand a standard of operational tradecraft that is as good as or better than that employed by 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Al Qaeda has two advantages in planning a follow-up to 9/11: The group has done it once before, and it won’t underestimate the obstacles of doing it again. As before, it will probably operate in complete secrecy, with hand-picked operatives pulled out of the group’s normal training and administrative structure, and working in places such as Europe, Asia, or South America.

Al Qaeda’s most brilliant accomplishment lay in its ability to plan an attack that no one expected – it achieved strategic surprise. Consequently, the very few indicators (and mistakes made) of an impending attack were not interpreted correctly by the counterterrorist community.

In spite of everything that has been done to improve homeland security and intelligence work since 9/11, the US remains highly vulnerable to an unprecedented attack, in terms of the unconventional nature of the weapon to be used, and the profile/footprint of the team conducting the attack.

The US and its allies need to actively search for the outliers of Al Qaeda, not just for those in the mainstream. They need to be looking outside the boundaries of what they think they know, to find the indicators of an impending attack.

In counterterrorism terms, it makes no sense to choose between relentlessly pressuring Al Qaeda in their known strongholds, or searching for them in ways and in places where they might be better positioned to do us harm. We must do both.

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former CIA intelligence officer for 23 years, is a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Before that, he served for three years as the director of intelligence and counterintelligence at the US Department of Energy.

A version of this piece was first published at the Belfer Center's Power & Policy blog.

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