Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud (L) sits beside a man who is believed to be Humam Khalil Abu-Malal Al-Balawi, the suicide bomber who killed CIA agents in Afghanistan, in this still image taken from a video released January 9, 2010

December 19, 2013

A Good Year for al Qaeda in Pakistan

Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud (L) sits beside a man who is believed to be Humam Khalil Abu-Malal Al-Balawi, the suicide bomber who killed CIA agents in Afghanistan, in this still image taken from a video released January 9, 2010. (Reuters)

Two thousand and thirteen was a good year for al Qaeda. The network grew on several fronts, including in Syria, where it has become a force to be reckoned with among the constellation of opposition groups fighting the Assad government, and in Iraq, where it has unleashed violence on a level unseen since the worst periods of the Iraq War in 2006-7. Pakistan, however, is the one theater of jihad where those who subscribe to the “al Qaeda is defeated” mantra continue to point.

Al Qaeda in Pakistan is on the ropes, or so the trope goes. Supporters of the idea claim that regardless of the network’s health in other parts of the world, al Qaeda in Pakistan (usually taken to mean al Qaeda “Core,” or the organization that existed on September 11, 2001) is incapable of planning or conducting major attacks due to the beating its senior leadership has taken from drones in Pakistan’s tribal areas. While the al Qaeda of 2001 may have suffered lasting damage, the network is not static and has evolved beyond the traditional reliance on a core cadre of co-located, hierarchically-organized senior leaders. Al Qaeda Core has not only replaced deceased leaders but has morphed to rely heavily on local operatives and militant groups such as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to support its operational arm. Recent events in Pakistan and a revised understanding of how the al Qaeda network operates should force reflection on whether the picture of a neutered al Qaeda is really accurate.

Praising the Dead

In order to maintain the argument that al Qaeda in Pakistan is defeated, the group need not be physically eliminated, but merely defined out of existence. The argument relies on an ultimately artificial distillation of al Qaeda out of the Pakistani militant milieu in which it is ensconced. While the TTP, the primary militant umbrella organization operating in Pakistan, is not an “official” affiliate of al Qaeda in the way that Yemen's al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) or Somalia's al Shabaab are, the recent death of its chief in a U.S. drone strike has helped illuminate the symbiotic relationship between the two groups.

When TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud was killed in a drone strike on November 1, 2013, he was eulogized not only by his compatriots in Pakistan, but also by the majority of al Qaeda's affiliates across the world. Al Qaeda's “General Command” released a statement on November 27 praising his contributions to the jihad and mourning his loss. On November 19, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) gave a similar eulogy. On November 15, al Shabaab's media arm issued a eulogy of its own for Hakimullah. A November 11 statement from AQAP lamented his death and praised the war being waged by the TTP against the Pakistani state. Statements mourning Hakimullah's death were also issued by the Afghan Taliban, and the Global Islamic Media Front, among others. Hakimullah Mehsud and the TTP would likely not receive such outpourings from key groups within the al Qaeda network were they not themselves an integral part of the network's structure. No other unaffiliated militant leader has received similar treatment to date following his death.

The TTP is, after all, a close associate of al Qaeda in Pakistan and provides it with all manner of logistical and operational support in its area of operations. In fact, the TTP has, over the years, become the foundation within which al Qaeda's original leadership has been able to survive and adapt. Al Qaeda’s senior leadership has long found sanctuary in TTP strongholds in northwest Pakistan. The TTP and al Qaeda’s operational arm in Pakistan frequently act in concert, with foreign al Qaeda operatives often providing the technical expertise and ideological guidance, and the TTP providing the manpower and resources necessary to actualize plots. One example of the relationship is that of the late Ilyas Kashmiri, a notorious Pakistani terrorist who had also become a senior al Qaeda commander. Prior to his death in a 2011 drone strike, Kashmiri helped fuse the activities of al Qaeda’s operational arm in Pakistan with that of existing militant networks operating in Pakistan’s tribal areas, Karachi and the Punjab.

Increasingly Lethal and Creative

Given the extremely close relationship between al Qaeda’s senior leadership and the TTP, and the degree to which al Qaeda’s operation arm in Pakistan coordinates with, and relies upon, the TTP for support, the performance of the TTP in the past year and the benefits it has reaped for itself throughout 2013 have benefited al Qaeda as well. The TTP managed to maintain a high tempo of violent, often spectacular attacks against the Pakistani state and, through the selective targeting of political parties during Pakistan's 2013 election season was, arguably, able to significantly influence the outcome of the polls in favor of parties taking a softer line towards the militants. Neither the previous government nor the one that came to power in May have made any concerted efforts to diminish the operational capacity of the TTP and al Qaeda in their Waziristan stronghold.

Alarmingly, al Qaeda’s operational arm seems to be reviving its more audacious and imaginative side with respect to the ambitiousness of the attacks it is planning. Police in Islamabad on October 11 raided an al Qaeda safe house described as being “purpose-built” with a lab in the basement dedicated to the research and development of explosives-laden drone aircraft. An al Qaeda member and electrical engineer who had previously worked for Pakistan’s air force was spearheading the one-and-a-half year-long plot and had reportedly made serious headway in both developing and testing remote-controlled (RC) aircraft capable of carrying significant quantities of explosives. It is worth pointing out that an al Qaeda cell routed in Spain in August 2012 was also experimenting with using bomb-laden RC planes—at least one of the men involved had traveled to Pakistan for training.

Separately, police in Lahore recently broke up an al Qaeda suicide bomber cell that appeared to be well-entrenched within Islamist student groups in the city’s Punjab University. University administrators and police are, to date, still finding, expelling and, where al Qaeda connections are discovered, arresting people illegally sheltering in dorms essentially controlled by the Islami Jamia-e-Talaba (IJT), the student wing of the right-wing Jamat-e-Islami (JI) political party. The IJT and JI have a well-established history of sympathizing with, and frequently providing sanctuary to, al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan's urban centers.

The Day is Not Won

As my colleague Katherine Zimmerman recently laid out, al Qaeda Core cannot be considered separate from its affiliates and local associates; killing a handful of key leaders in Pakistan’s tribal areas has not seriously diminished the capabilities of its local associates to operate across Pakistan. The interwoven framework is what gives the group both strength and flexibility, to say nothing of the confusion it inflicts upon its enemies in leaving them unsure as to whether they should care about attacks by militant groups across the world with “local” agendas.

Al Qaeda’s associates in Pakistan have been wreaking havoc across the country relatively unchecked for months. They continue to work closely with each other and with their al Qaeda contacts. The outpourings from al Qaeda affiliates following Hakimullah Mehsud's death made painfully obvious the special role he and the TTP play within the larger network. The new leader of the TTP, Mullah Fazlullah, is uncompromising and bloodthirsty and is likely to continue attacking the Pakistani state at every opportunity. Al Qaeda's leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, appears able to coordinate the activities of the entire al Qaeda satellite network remotely from his secret haven in Pakistan. The drone lab’s discovery reveals that al Qaeda’s creative wing in Pakistan may not be quite as dormant as once portrayed.

With the U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan in 2014 looming, al Qaeda is on the cusp of outlasting its enemy and possibly gaining increasing room to operate in an Afghanistan that will be free of a significant American presence. The relatively diminished capabilities of U.S. drone and special operations forces that will remain behind will then likely be unable to avail of even the occasional help they currently receive from Pakistani intelligence in hunting down al Qaeda operatives.

Al Qaeda’s network and associates in Pakistan got a free pass in 2013. For 2014, we dismiss it as a group of has-beens at our own peril.