Syndicate of terror was how Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton described the relationship between al-Qaeda and the various insurgent and terrorist
“Syndicate of terror” was how Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton described the relationship between al-Qaeda and the various insurgent and terrorist networks across the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, a position eagerly endorsed by her colleagues Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen. Anticipating the argument that the syndicate does not substantially threaten the United States at home, Clinton said that “at the head of the table,” like a “Mafia family,” sat al-Qaeda. And that means, she continued during her testimony today before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that al-Qaeda retains a capability to export terrorism to “Yemen, Somalia or, indeed, Denver” that is “unmatched” — a reference to the recently arrested Najibullah Zazi. Zazi’s case, which has yet to go to trial, shows a plot that traces “back to al-Qaeda-originated training camps and [a] training program” in Pakistan.
This is going to be one of the most controversial and disputed elements of the Obama administration’s strategy: the scope of the threat and the directness of the links between al-Qaeda in the Pakistani tribal areas; its strategic depth through the “syndicate” on each side of the Afghanistan and Pakistan border; and that syndicate’s capabilities to export destruction. “This is no idle danger; no hypothetical threat,” President Obama said at Tuesday during his speech at West Point. “In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror.”
I am told by senior administration officials that the autumn Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy was informed by 30 intelligence products, many of which were directly produced for the review, and several of which focused on the question of al-Qaeda’s global reach from the Pakistani tribal areas. I’m also told that the military is increasingly looking at the nexus between al-Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, the Haqqani network in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and a rising extremist ally, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. But the link between that nexus and its present capability to reach the United States at home, to put it as neutrally as I can, has not been publicly demonstrated, and requires much further and deeper exposition — and, frankly, proof — than the administration has provided.
“The reality,” Gates added, “is that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, place high value on their affiliation with al-Qaeda on that border and there is ample intelligence” of others forming and seeking to reach back to the capabilities of al-Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan. However, when pressed on the wisdom of such a heavy focus on Afghanistan in a broader counterterrorism strategy by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), Gates replied by stressing the risks of al-Qaeda “reconstitut[ing] itself, [to] perhaps provoke a war in India-Pakistan and perhaps gaining access to nuclear weapons.” He did not mention a threat to the U.S. domestically.
But today, Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, said that there was a significant risk that “recent arrests” — like Zazi — mean that terrorists have been “sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit more acts of terror.” She said that Zazi’s connections to al-Qaeda’s senior leadership in that region were “at most one step removed.”
Watch this very carefully. How closely was Zazi actually connected to al-Qaeda senior leadership? How anomalous or indicative is his case? What does his arrest represent about U.S. domestic capabilities relative to those of the al-Qaeda “syndicate”? And how much information will the Obama administration release to demonstrate the scope of this threat and these ties, as oppose to asserting them as self-evident?
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