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.
(Page 3 of 3)
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.