By Senior investigative producer
NBC News
updated 5/23/2007 9:58:43 AM ET 2007-05-23T13:58:43

There is a saying in the tribal areas that span the Afghanistan-Pakistan border lands, one that is usually expressed with a sly smile: “The Americans have the watches. We have the time.”

The underlying message, of course, is quite clear: Al-Qaida and the Taliban have the patience they need to reconstitute and refocus their operations, using different models than those they used prior to Sept. 11, 2001, and working perhaps on different targets.

And things certainly seem to be changing. Roger Cressey, former deputy director of counterterrorism at the National Security Council and now an NBC News analyst, points out that, once again, al-Qaida has morphed into what another analyst, Peter Bergin, calls "al-Qaida 3.0."

The first version was a hierarchal organization; the second was more inspirational, meant to spur a series of loosely affiliated groups allied around a central idea.

“We are now dealing with a hybrid phenomenon,” Cressey says. “Al-Qaida the organization has reconstituted in a way that they can reach out to the jihadi movement and provide homegrown terrorists with facilities and empowerment, particularly through links in Pakistan.”

But have the terrorists lost anything in that morphing? Are they as capable worldwide? And are the changes — with their accompanying lack of major support mechanisms and reliance on simpler and more local organizational structures — forcing it to postpone attacks on the United States and other Western targets? That would be the ultimate act of patience.

Four NBC News military and counter-terrorism analysts, including Cressey, along with other experts, disagree on the many of the answers. Some point to a number of events the last several months that could indicate a resurgence of the al-Qaida threat across the world. But others believe that those same events show al-Qaida has made a conscious decision to think smaller — to focus on moderate Sunni Muslim regimes, such as Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Algeria, as well as weak states like Iraq — rather than trying to mount attacks on the United States.

For these analysts, al-Qaida is doing what other terrorist groups do on a smaller scale: Avoid the hard target and focus more on the soft.

Success on Pakistan border
One thing is clear: Everyone consulted agrees that the organization is doing well along that Afghanistan-Pakistan border, a position Bush administration officials have, reluctantly, come to accept.

On May 8, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates testified before Senate Appropriations Committee on the issue, becoming the first high-level official to state what has been circulating in the upper levels of the administration for some time now.

“Al-Qaida has expanded in organization and capabilities” said Gates, adding that it “reestablished itself in western Pakistan [and is] training new recruits.”

A senior U.S. intelligence official says that Gates’ comments are reflected in what has been circulating inside the intelligence community.

“The tribal areas in northwest Pakistan are a growing problem,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We’re not talking about the kind of stuff we saw before 9/11 in Afghanistan, where thousands were trained.” Rather, it’s now a case of “training the trainer,” who returns home to teach his comrades.

“A very sophisticated strategy,” the official added.

“The truce arrangements the Pakistanis have made with tribal leaders in those areas are a problem,” the official continued. “The sense is that al-Qaida does feel a greater degree of freedom to operate. ... The Pakistanis move with caution and they are not doing all they can do.”

Upside to tribal region situation
A White House official, trying to put a positive spin on the truce arrangements, recently said there is an upside to the al-Qaida resurgence in the tribal regions: that the newfound freedom can lead to mistakes in operational security and exposure.

And the intelligence official said that indeed “when they mass and have facilities that we can identify, the Pakistanis take some advantage ... but not enough.”

In this regard, Gates suggested the United States may have to take more of a role in Waziristan, the Pakistani province where the first truce agreement was made and where most of the new al-Qaida training takes place.

In fact, Gates shocked some when, in a hearing in the which he was asked by senators what the U.S. military is going to do to kill or capture al-Qaida leadership, he responded with the announcement that, “We have plans to go after al-Qaida leadership in Waziristan Province.” The surprise is that Gates would admit this, knowing how sensitive the Pakistani government is regarding the presence of U.S. troops on its soil.

This new candor comes with the reality that al-Qaida-linked operations in countries such as Iraq, North Africa, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon have been very busy. In the past month, for instance, al-Qaida affiliates in Iraq and Algeria have used suicide bombings to attack national parliaments, killing more than 40. Meanwhile, in Morocco police were able to thwart a series of bombings planned for government facilities and tourist sites. Both the Algerian and Moroccan attacks were organized by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, a group formed only in January from disparate jihadi elements and sworn to bring down the regimes in that region.

In addition, more than 170 men were arrested by Saudi authorities, including many from Nigeria, Mauritania, Yemen, Syria and Morocco. The group had already been organized into seven cells, with the target being the Saudi government. Perhaps more important in establishing their seriousness of purpose, they had already buried more than $5 million in the desert.

Now this week, Lebanese security forces are battling an al Qaida-linked group, Fatah al-Islam, on the outskirts of Tripoli.

‘Reading what it means’
Still, according to NBC News military analyst William M. Arkin, the question remains whether this “is hair on fire or the world on fire?” (“Hair on fire” is a term former CIA Director George Tenet used to describe the agency’s warnings of an attack against the U.S. before 9/11.) 

“On any given day, we can come up with 20 attack plots around the world. The real challenge is reading what it means,” Arkin adds. “We have been told all about the dots.”

Arkin believes that what we are seeing is mostly a campaign against the Sunni-dominated governments of those countries, from Morocco to Pakistan, who have been our allies in the war on terror.

“What it connotes is anti-Western terrorism and insurgency ... focused on undermining the West and its proxies,” Arkin adds, “undermining Western culture and its proxies in the Sunni world.”

Michael Sheehan, who is both a former coordinator for State Department counterterrorism efforts and an ex-deputy police commissioner in New York, suggests that al-Qaida is doing well only in war-torn areas.

“I think al-Qaida is a dying organization except in a few areas of the Islamic world, like Iraq, like Afghanistan, like North Africa,” he said. “They have shown a lack of capability in their main goal, attacking the United States.

“This (going after Sunni states) is not a strategy of choice — just what’s left for them.  Can they make stuff happen in Afghanistan? Yes. But can they make stuff happen in the West? They haven’t attacked in the United States in nearly six years and in July, it will be two years since there has been any attack in the West (the London Underground bombings).”

Sheehan dismisses the idea that al-Qaida is “waiting” for the right opportunity. “This is not a strategic choice for them. They’re not waiting. Anyone who knows anything about terrorism will tell you they don’t wait. When they’re ready, they go!”

He contends that suicide bombings are the result of long-simmering conflicts, where frustration and a lack of alternatives make for easier recruiting: “Sri Lanka, Palestine, Iraq, Algeria — countries that have been at war for most of the last 20, 30, 40 years.”

Jihadis are targeting Sunni leaders, he says, but he does not believe that al-Qaida, even “resurgent,” is capable of attacking the United States and certainly not at the level of 9/11.

“This frustration with Sunni Islam — and projecting that against Israel and the United States — has legs. Can you take that to an operation against the United States? Quite frankly, they haven’t been able to do it. It’s comprehensive failure.”

‘They had to clean up the rest of the world’
Lt. Col. Rick Francona, a retired U.S. Air Force officer who served as a defense attaché in Baghdad, Damascus and Dubai, agrees with Sheehan.

“Two, three years ago, I believe, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who runs al-Qaida on a day-to-day basis, made a decision that going against the U.S. is too hard to do,” said Francona, an NBC News and CNBC analyst. “They had to clean up the rest of the world.”

Francona also cites reasoning similar to that of Sheehan. “They’re not having a lot of success lately in the West. They need a success ... some successes. If their goal, their basis is attacking the U.S., they are losing their basis.”

Instead, according to Francona, people should think of this more as a realignment, reorganization and refocus rather than a reconstitution or resurgence.

Where does Francona think al-Qaida will move next? 

Certainly Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and probably Jordan. The problem for al-Qaida is that Saudi Arabia and Jordan have excellent internal security apparatuses, he said. As for Iraq, Francona thinks al-Qaida there is not likely to emerge triumphant even if the U.S. leaves.

“Sunni insurgency is more than one insurgency,” he said. “It is multiple insurgencies and the only thing they have in common is that they hate us. If they survive, they will turn on each other,” he adds.

The Lebanon situation fits the model Sheehan and Francona describe. Although it is described as “linked to al-Qaida,” U.S. intelligence says those links are not to core al-Qaida, but to al-Qaida in Iraq or “al-Qaida once removed,” as one intelligence analyst describes it. And, the same analyst notes, in spite of its leaders’ anti-U.S. and anti-Western rhetoric, “Its organizing principle is not global jihad, it’s Israel.”

It’s typical in other ways, as well, says the analyst. “It’s not particularly large, it links to al-Qaida, even al-Qaida in Iraq, are hard to tell and its fighters were recruited and trained in refugee camps. We are seeing a lot of that.”

‘Right now intent exceeds capability’
Cressey is not so optimistic about the chances of the United States being spared an attack in spite of al-Qaida’s interest in Sunni regimes.

The current model, he says, is the aforementioned 2005 London Underground bombing, which we now know was not purely home grown. “They received training in Pakistan. This reconstituted infrastructure is now directly supporting individuals and groups.

“That model is what you’re going to be seeing,” says Cressey. “Al-Qaida looking for these groups [and] these groups looking for al-Qaida.”

Cressey says the one plot that should make people wary — and has indeed made many U.S. officials very anxious — was the thwarted London airliner plot from last August.

“What you saw was a template you have got to look for regarding possible attacks on the U.S..” he said. “A lot of things went right for us in disrupting this, but as long as they live and breathe, they are going to plot and plan for an attack on the U.S.

“It’s intent vs. capability. Right now intent exceeds capability.”

Asked if this new al-Qaida is going to focus more on the United States or instead on friendly Sunni governments, Cressey says, “It’s both!  Getting both of us. They can’t effect action inside the U.S., but they can within the Sunni regimes. They believe any attack within the U.S.-allied Sunni regimes is an attack on us.

“At the risk of sounding hysterical, I think we are overdue for an attempt against U.S. interests,” added Cressey. “We have done a good job at hardening overseas government targets — embassies and military —  but there are other targets.”

‘What’s in for me?’
Many experts contend that this refocus on Islamic regimes will cause Sunni leaders to rearrange their foreign policy priorities — as a defense mechanism. They point to recent comments by the Saudi king, Abdullah, criticizing the U.S. “occupation” of Iraq, as evidence of Sunni fear of rising Islamic fundamentalism.

“He (Abdullah) knows how unpopular (President) Bush and the United States are in his country ... and the region,” says the official. “So he looks at the public opinion in his country and then takes a look at the calendar and thinks, ‘What’s in for me to keep supporting Bush when I have a lot of fundamentalism sentiment in the kingdom?’”

Pakistan is taking a similar, if lower-key, position, says Barnett Rubin of New York University and an NBC News analyst on South Asia. The country’s leadership is being judicious in going after Islamists.

“The government of Pakistan has definitely gone after the foreigners and al-Qaida — that is to say the people from Arab world or the former Soviet Union,” says Rubin. “But they have not shown any of that determination in going after the Taliban from Afghanistan or the Taliban from Pakistan who have now taken over significant portions of Pakistani territory in those areas.”

The United States is not without recent success in the war on al-Qaida. The Saudi raid was helped by U.S. intelligence. So, reportedly, were the Moroccan raids that thwarted terror in Casablanca.

And a man believed to be at least top five and possibly top three — Abdul al Hadi al Iraqi — was quietly picked up a few weeks ago and is now in Guantanamo Bay. Al Iraqi has long been described as the man who brokered the agreement between bin Laden and Abu Musab al Zarqawi that resulted in the Iraqi terrorist leader pledging “bayat” — personal loyalty — to bin Laden and the renaming of his organization as al-Qaida in Iraq.

But the question remains: Does any of this matter?  Thousands of jihadis have been arrested or killed in various Muslim states from North Africa to Southeast Asia, including four men once viewed as al-Qaida’s No. 3.

The lack of attacks against the U.S. homeland — and even U.S. interests overseas — can be attributed at least in part to the vigilance and aggressiveness of the Bush administration.

Few doubt the Iraq war and stalemate between the Israelis and the Palestinians are breeding more extremists, more terrorists. If they can destabilize moderate Muslim states, toppling even one, the threat grows exponentially and whatever the hands on those watches are reading, it’s hard to imagine time not being on their side.

Robert Windrem is an investigative producer with NBC News.

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