Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula now believes it can expand its operations to stage attacks in Europe and the United States, according to an NBC counter-terrorism expert.
Roger Cressey, a former presidential adviser, said the group — known as AQAP — had largely restricted its operations to the peninsula, but he warned that it should now included on a "pretty grim" list of potential threats to the West.
He was speaking on NBC's TODAY show after Saudi intelligence warned that AQAP was planning an attack in Europe, with France thought to be most at risk.
According to U.S. investigators, AQAP was behind the failed attempt to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 by so-called "underwear bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on Dec. 25 last year.
Cressey told TODAY that AQAP now believed it can "project power into Europe and they certainly want to try again inside the U.S." They should be added to al-Qaida Central and "other threat streams," he said.
"It paints a pretty grim picture, but it's also one that law enforcement and the intelligence community is on top of," Cressey he said.
Not living in cavesAsked that Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri were living in northwestern Pakistan in houses — rather than in caves — Cressey said he was not surprised as the location of his hiding place had long been suspected.
Cressey said Bin Laden had not been caught because the local population sympathized with him, the geography of the area made surveillance difficult and also because he might be receiving help from members of the Pakistani intelligence services.
"We're going to get bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri when we get a little bit of luck and a little bit of good information," Cressey said. "But we've tried for nine years now and we've failed so far unfortunately."
Senior U.S. intelligence officials told NBC News they had never believed Bin Laden or al-Zawahiri were hiding in caves.
One senior U.S. official, who is closely involved in the hunt for Bin Laden, said the two men were surrounded by the Taliban fighters from the Haqqani network and Pakistani Taliban (TTP).
"Haqqani and the TTP provide Bin Laden and Zawahiri with sanctuary and muscle," the official told NBC News.
Commenting on speculation that the Pakistani intelligence services (ISI) were protecting Bin Laden, the U.S. official said, "there's always been some suspicion" but the U.S. had never been able to come up with any hard evidence.
U.S. officials have long said if there is any ISI connection it could be at the "lower, local levels, not from the top," NBC News reported.
Bin Laden still dangerous
The senior U.S. official said despite the growing threat from al-Qaida in Yemen and Africa, al-Qaida in Pakistan — meaning Bin Laden — "remains the most dangerous" and "the most vital target" in the war.
Although Bin Laden was not directly involved in any terrorist plots, the official said he was "still active in providing suggestion for possible targets, tactics, and ultimate approval" for operations.
Al-Qaida threats in order were: Pakistan; Yemen; Somalia; North Africa; Iraq; and Afghanistan. In terms of the threat al-Qaida represents, "Iraq and Afghanistan don't even come close" to Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, according to the U.S. official.
Following the Saudi warning of a potential attack by AQAP, French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said Sunday that "the threat is real."
"We must not overestimate the threat or underestimate it," the minister said. "We are directly concerned."
It was the latest in a series of alerts that have put French security forces and others in high-vigilance mode.
On Sept. 9, Interpol, the international police organization, signaled an "Islamist threat on a world scale, and notably on the European continent," Hortefeux said without elaborating.
That was followed by a Sept. 16, report of a woman suicide bomber who could take action in France — later judged not fully credible.
Intelligence sources in North Africa also contacted France about a potential threat as did the United States, Hortefeux said.