Post-Iraq, would-be militants eye Pakistan
The camps will probably be smaller and the skills on offer less photogenic to al Qaeda’s online video audience, but that is no deterrent to Arabs, Central Asians and Europeans making their way to the turbulent northwestern tribal areas.
Those arrivals are in addition to a steady flow of Britons of Pakistani descent who have visited the area for many years, security sources say. The assumption among many Western officials is that U.S. success in Iraq since 2006 has diverted some recruits for the anti-Western cause to the Pakistan-Afghan theatre.
While Iraq rarely provided the range of commando-style training available in the 1990s at sprawling al Qaeda camps on the border with Afghanistan, Iraq’s draw as a battlefield in 2003-2006 diverted potential jihadi trainees away from Pakistan.
The goal today for these young men is to fight U.S. forces in neighbouring Afghanistan or to gain the skills to carry out attacks back home in the Middle East, Africa or the West.
Now, porous borders, corrupt officials and inventive smugglers mean a determined foreigner has little problem simply entering Pakistan, experts say, although reaching a camp in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas can be harder due to U.S. drone attacks and tougher security checks by militant groups.
The following are a selection of quotes on this topic from security officials and analysts.
Rob Wainwright, Director of the European Union police agency Europol
“We see a pattern which shows Afghanistan and Pakistan seem to have replaced Iraq as preferred destinations for volunteers wishing to engage in armed conflict … We still see that recruits travel to training camps as part of their radicalisation process.
“Those who get training on the Pakistani-Afghan border are from various backgrounds — for example European converts and persons with Arab, North African and Turkish backgrounds.”
“Some of these persons who have been trained in Pakistan were arrested in Europe in connection with cases of attempt of terrorist attacks.”
Brynjar Lia, research professor, Norwegian Defence Research Establishment.
“There is an increased emphasis on Afghanistan and Pakistan as a jihadi arena in al Qaeda’s online propaganda … The appearance of European jihadis in al Qaeda propaganda material, for example martyrdom videos, suggests the numbers are increasing.”
But Pakistan’s “distance from the heart of the Arab world in general, and from Palestine in particular, is a big minus compared to the Iraqi battlefield, according to al Qaeda ideologues.”
Richard Barrett, coordinator of the U.N.’s al Qaeda-Taliban monitoring team.
“Training over the last couple of years has typically taken place in small compounds which you find throughout the area of northwest Pakistan, rather than in large purpose-built camps. I have also heard of it taking place in apartments or houses in places like Karachi. It is hard to spot and quantify.”
Senior Belgian police officer Alain Grignard, quoted by U.S.-based counter-terrorism publication CTC Sentinel.
“Not since before 9/11 have we seen as many people travel towards the Afghanistan-Pakistan conflict region.”
Brian Glyn Williams, Associate Professor of Islamic History at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.
“I’ve seen epitaphs of Kazakhs, Turks, Azerbaijanis, and Uzbekistanis on recent jihadi websites (related to the Afghanistan-Pakistan conflict zone).
“People are still continuing to go (from Britain). Numbers are hard to judge but it remains a matter of concern.
Drone attacks have had a suppressant effect, making training and communication harder for al Qaeda and linked groups.”
Raphael Perl, Head of the Action Against Terrorism Unit at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
“There’s no question that people are still going and the campaign to recruit people has intensified greatly.
“A small percentage go into active operations immediately. Some are just used for cannon fodder, in that part of Asia. And some of the very capable ones are sent back and told blend into society.”
Jean-Pierre Filiu, associate professor at the Paris Institute of Political Studies.
“The Iraq war bred a new generation of (French-based) jihadis who weren’t involved in violent extremism before … There was the fear of a backlash from people coming back from Iraq, battle-hardened and with new techniques. So the backlash was handled, those people were monitored closely, several networks were dismantled.
“French militants don’t go to Pakistan or Yemen.”
Noman Benotman, Libyan former anti-Soviet fighter in Afghanistan.
“I think the message many Arabs receive from al Qaeda leaders nowadays is – don’t come here (to Pakistan). We don’t need you here: Go to Yemen’.”
“And we have seen a move to Yemen, mainly by Saudis, to strengthen the al Qaeda base there. It represents a big danger.”
Anne Stenersen, the Terrorism Research Group of the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment.
“My general impression is the flow of fighters is definitely not as big as it was in the 1980s, since the situation today is completely different — in the 1980s the jihad against the USSR was more widely accepted, travel was less restricted, etc…
“Today’s fighters who wish to go … would face a number of additional challenges — security services are more alert, drone attacks in the tribal areas, etc.. Also, the groups operating in this region are not a united front, but divided on vital issues such as who to fight — the ‘occupation’ of Afghanistan, or the Pakistani government. (There is) anecdotal evidence of foreign fighters who get caught up in tribal conflicts or end up fighting the Pakistani security forces for self-defence, rather than entering into Afghanistan.”
Mustafa Alani, Gulf Research Centre
(Whether in Pakistan or Yemen), the major al Qaeda investment is in recruitment, not training. Most action now involves suicide bombers or exploding a car by remote control. This mainly requires influencing the mind of the subject, while most of the physical training can be done in a room. The old-style camps we saw on the publicity videos, where fighters climb over obstacles or go across fires, are mostly in the past. The groups have passed this stage. Now it is about how to evade things like monitoring in an airport. And that is a response to the new technology of counter-terrorism.”
Saman Zarifi, Amnesty International Asia-Pacific Director
“The madrassas are training people, taking over abandoned buildings and schools. Everyone has anecdotal evidence of Arabs and Central Asians. But it’s not the same volume as the past, as the Pakistani state is no longer in that business.”
Pakistani High Commissioner to Britain Wajid Shamsul Hasan
“The foreign militants are there … and with due assistance from our friends in the West, hopefully we can overcome them.”