In a Frankfurt courtroom last week, authorities charged three German citizens with a plot to kill Americans, accusing them of targeting a dance club in Giessen favored by U.S. service members. The authorities said the plot had the potential to kill hundreds of people and that the men were inspired by the December 2002 attack on two discos in Bali, Indonesia, that left more than 200 dead.
For Western intelligence officials, the plot was not a run-of-the-mill conspiracy by disaffected young men wanting to join the jihad. The reason was twofold: Two of the three were ethnic Germans, and all three had been trained at jihadi training camps in Waziristan, the tribal area of Pakistan where al-Qaida and Taliban training camps are located.
More than anything else, it’s what one counterterrorism official calls “the white men of Waziristan” that worries officials — the increasing possibility that the next attacks in Europe or North America will be carried out not by those with Arab or South Asian passports, but by young Caucasian men from Germany, Great Britain, Australia, Canada or even the United States.
‘No bigger worry’
“There is no bigger worry for the U.S. counterterrorism community than young Caucasian men who have turned to al-Qaida,” said Roger Cressey, former National Security Council official in the Clinton and Bush administrations and now an NBC News consultant.
The most public expression of that concern was a little-noticed speech in mid-August by Ted Gistaro, the national intelligence officer for transnational threats at the National Directorate for Intelligence, created in 2004 to act as a clearinghouse for intelligence gathered by all U.S. agencies. In short, Gistaro is the intelligence community’s strategic thinker on terrorism.
While Gistaro was careful to note that “we are not aware of any specific, credible al-Qaida plot to attack the U.S. homeland,” he added, “Al-Qaida is identifying, training and positioning operatives for attacks in the West, likely including in the United States. These operatives include North American and European citizens and legal residents with passports that allow them to travel to the United States without a U.S. visa.”
Gistaro was reiterating what CIA Director Michael V. Hayden said more colorfully when interviewed by Tim Russert on “Meet the Press” in March.
“It's very clear to us that al-Qaida has been able, over the past 18 months or so, to establish a safe haven along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area that they have not enjoyed before, that they are bringing operatives into that region for training, operatives that … wouldn't attract your attention if they were going through the customs line at Dulles with you when you're coming back from overseas,” he said.
Asked by Russert if he meant that the operatives “look Western,” Hayden replied, “Look Western, (people) who … would be able to come into this country … without attracting the kind of attention that others might.”
White House also concerned
Cressey said the concern extends to the White House.
“In early August, the president had a joint (National Security Council/Homeland Security Council) meeting on current threats, and the single biggest concern is the training of people that Gistaro referenced ... because they can't be tracked and they're not in anyone's database,” he said.
The idea that Westerners have been training with al-Qaida has been among the nagging concerns of U.S. intelligence since shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In 2004, former CIA Director George Tenet alluded to the perceived threat, saying in a speech that “what we are fighting has an Arab face, an African face, an Asian face and an American face — a face that exists in our hemisphere.”
There have been isolated examples of Americans working with al-Qaida or the Taliban — John Walker Lindh, the Californian who fought with the Taliban against U.S. forces in Afghanistan; Jose Padilla, the Illinois man convicted of conspiring to kill Americans overseas; and Adam Gadahn, the California video-gamer turned al-Qaida propagandist, who remains at large.
Ranks appear to be growing
What is different now, say intelligence officials and experts, is evidence that the ranks of Western converts are growing, including the arrest of the Germans in the plot to kill U.S. service members. While U.S. intelligence is not willing to detail its sourcing on the presence of Westerners in al-Qaida camps, NBC News has been told:
- Sources in Pakistan’s South Waziristan, home of the most active al-Qaida operations in the border region, have recently reported seeing “white men” among those being trained in the camps. The U.S. believes al-Qaida has dozens of such operatives trained for terrorist attacks.
- There has been an increase in the use of English in al-Qaida messages to stoke discontent and motivate homegrown extremists. A tape released by Ayman al Zawahiri, al-Qaida’s second-in-command, in August was his first in English. Although it was aimed at English speakers in Pakistan, it follows a general pattern. Gadahn, the Californian-turned-jihadi, has been featured in al-Qaida videos, although he has not been heard from since January. (U.S. officials do not believe he is dead but offer no explanation for his absence.)
- There is a thriving online jihadi community that often uses English to target disaffected Americans.
- Taliban officials have been boasting that they are training Westerners, claiming they have “several people from the West there in their training camps now.” The Taliban said people “are coming from all over the world,” especially from the U.S., United Kingdom, Germany and Australia, to get jihadi training in South Waziristan. Some of them later return to their home countries, while others stay and fight Western forces in Afghanistan, according to the Taliban officials. The U.S. believes the Westerners are in fact in Pakistan, other parts of South Asia and perhaps Europe. There’s no information that they have made it to the United States.
- Most recently, Taliban officials have contended that among foreign fighters “martyred” in a Predator attack near Wana in South Waziristan on Aug. 30 were “two Arabs of Canadian origin.” U.S. counterterrorism officials will neither confirm nor deny the claim.
Al-Qaida operating freely along border
Gistaro said al-Qaida also has been able to operate training camps along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border with increasing freedom.
“Al-Qaida has strengthened its safe haven in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas by deepening its alliances with Pakistani militants and pushing many elements of Pakistani government authority from the area,” he said. “It now has many of the operational and organizational advantages it once enjoyed across the border in Afghanistan, albeit on a smaller and less secure scale.”
Political instability in Pakistan and a sevenfold increase in suicide attacks in the past seven months have added to fears that the safe haven could expand. Intelligence officials agree there's a nationwide campaign of intimidation, with attacks now taking place in both urban and tribal areas.
Could this resurgence be a precursor of new al-Qaida threats against the U.S.?
“As the election nears, we expect to see an uptick in such threat reporting — of varying credibility — regarding possible attacks,” Gistaro said. “We also expect to see an increase in al-Qaida's propaganda efforts, especially around the anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which has often been a hook for such propaganda statements.”
“In Osama bin Laden's September 2007 address to the American people, he labeled the democratic system a failure,” Gistaro said. He also called for Americans to convert to Islam and warned that the only other solution "is to continue to escalate the killing and fighting against you."
That political philosophy is part of al-Qaida training, whether for Arabs or Americans, say officials.
Election likely a motivation
While al-Qaida has no preferred candidate, said a senior intelligence official, “they certainly want to be a topic of the election” as they were in 2004 when bin Laden’s first video in three years aired four days before voters went to the polls. Sen. John Kerry has said he believes the video turned the election to President Bush.
More recently, al-Qaida hasn’t been getting the attention it is used to. Media outlets that raced to post Zawahiri audios seven years ago are now ignoring them. That factors into the intelligence community’s assessment that we will likely hear from al-Qaida’s leadership before the election — through words, violence or both.
“Perhaps the most pressing security challenge for the next administration is how to deal with the al-Qaida safe haven in Pakistan,” said Cressey. “None of the options is ideal, but it’s clear that action will be required.”
NBC News' correspondent Jeannie Ohm and Mushtaq Yusufzai contributed to this report.