WASHINGTON: Senior leaders of al-Qaeda are using sanctuaries in Pakistan’s lawless frontier regions to plan new terror attacks and funnel money, manpower and guidance to affiliates around the world, according to a top American military commander.
Gen. David Petraeus, who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said in an interview that Pakistan has become the nerve center of al-Qaeda’s global operations, allowing the terror group to re-establish its organizational structure and build stronger ties to al-Qaeda offshoots in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, North Africa and parts of Europe, IRNA reported.
The comments underscore a growing US belief that Pakistan has displaced Afghanistan as al-Qaeda’s main stronghold. “It is the headquarters of the senior al-Qaeda leadership,” said the general, who took the helm of the military’s Central Command last fall.
In the interview, Gen. Petraeus also warned of difficult months ahead in Afghanistan, saying Taliban militants are moving weapons and forces into areas where the US is adding troops, planning a ‘surge’ of their own to counter the US plan.
The commander said that the US had intelligence showing that the Taliban were deploying new fighters to southern Afghanistan, appointing new local commanders, and pre- positioning weapons and other supplies.
“We have every expectation that the Taliban will fight to retain the sanctuaries and safe havens that they’ve been able to establish,” he said.
Senior Obama administration officials have spoken publicly for weeks about the threat posed by Pakistan. In late March, President Barack Obama said that Pakistan’s lawless border region had ‘become the most dangerous place in the world’ for Americans.
Pakistani officials have acknowledged that their country is facing a growing threat from al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other armed Islamist groups. Appearing at the White House on Wednesday with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari pledged to ‘stand with our brother Karzai and the people of Afghanistan against this common threat, this menace, which I have called a cancer’.
Pakistani Ambassador to Washington Hussein Haqqani said that his government is ‘determined to eliminate al-Qaeda and the terrorist Taliban’. He added, “We have launched a major offensive against the Taliban and look forward to acting on any actionable intelligence shared with us by our American partners.”
US officials once believed that years of strikes had broken al-Qaeda’s leadership into smaller, less effective splinter groups. But in the interview, Gen. Petraeus said US intelligence information suggested that al Qaeda has re-emerged as a centrally directed organization capable of helping to plan attacks in other countries.
“There is a degree of hierarchy, there is a degree of interconnection, and there is certainly a flow of people, money, expertise, explosives and knowledge,” he said. Gen. Petraeus painted a picture of a globalized al Qaeda that maintains extensive logistical and communications links to terror groups in Morocco, Somalia and other countries.
A ring of Tunisian suicide bombers who were recently apprehended in Iraq appear to have received their directions from al Qaeda figures in Pakistan as well, he said. “There’s absolutely no question about these links,” he said. He said that al-Qaeda hired Sunni Arab lawless gangs in southern Iran as ‘facilitators’, without the government’s knowledge, to pass supplies through southern Iran. NNI