“Core” al-Qaeda is the Pakistan-based, Ayman al-Zawahiri-led part of the terrorist network – a term used by the administration to differentiate it from terrorist franchises that have been set up in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and north and east Africa.
Pakistani troops were sent Tuesday to bolster security at prisons in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab provinces, including a facility in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa capital, Peshawar, where high-profile militants are held.
The move follows an armed attack last week on a prison in Dera Ismail Khan, south of Peshawar, in which hundreds of prisoners, including militants, were freed. The Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP) claimed responsibility for the assault, but security officials said they were investigating the possibility of al-Qaeda involvement in the planning, which likely took place in Waziristan, one of the tribal areas adjacent the Afghanistan border.
TTP has close ties with Zawahiri’s group; the U.S. government has described the former as a “force multiplier” for the latter. TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud said last December the two organizations were so close his fighters were “willing to get our heads cut off for al-Qaeda.”
The Dera Ismail Khan attack occurred within days of three other serious prison breaks in the Muslim world – the escape on July 27 of more than 1,000 prisoners from a jail in Benghazi, Libya; and the springing of hundreds of inmates, including senior al-Qaeda members, from Abu Ghraib and another prison in Iraq on July 22.
The incidents prompted the international policing agency Interpol to issue an alert at the weekend encouraging cooperation between member countries.
Citing “suspected al-Qaeda involvement in several of the breakouts which led to the escape of hundreds of terrorists and other criminals,” Interpol asked authorities to “closely follow and swiftly process any information linked to these events and the escaped prisoners.”
This would help “to determine whether any of these recent events are coordinated or linked,” it said.
Last Wednesday an audio message posted online, purportedly featuring Zawahiri’s voice, pledged to “spare no effort to free all our prisoners.” He did not refer to the recent escapes in the region, however, and three prisoners he mentioned by name are all in American custody – one at Guantanamo Bay and two in the United States.
Core al-Qaeda: ‘diminished’ but still giving orders
This week’s U.S. worldwide security alert, embassy closures and ordered withdrawal of diplomatic staff from Yemen were reportedly prompted by the interception of instruction messages from Zawahiri to the leader of the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Nasir al-Wuhayshi.
They have turned a spotlight on the administration’s repeated declarations, especially since the death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, that al-Qaeda is on the ropes.
The White House and State Department on Tuesday both defended those statements, stressing that when they have been made by the president or administration officials they have referred to al-Qaeda’s core – not to affiliates like AQAP, the main focus of the current security alert.
“Al-Qaeda’s core leadership, the leadership that attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, has been decimated,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney. “Al-Qaeda core in the AfPak [Afghanistan-Pakistan] region has been greatly diminished and is on the run.”
“And we have, for a number of years now, made clear that our attention in terms of the threat presented by al-Qaeda has shifted in focus to some of these affiliates, in particular AQAP,” he said.
During Tuesday’s State Department briefing a reporter raised the issue of Zawahiri still giving the orders for terror attacks – indicating that affiliates like AQAP were therefore not operating independently of the core – but spokeswoman Jen Psaki did not respond directly.
“We’ve consistently said we’ve been concerned about the threat of al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula,” she said.
Since the death of bin Laden, the theme of a weakened core al-Qaeda has also featured in the intelligence community’s annual report on threats facing the U.S.
In his 2012 report to Congress, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper assessed that in the next two or three years core al-Qaeda would become of largely symbolic importance to the global jihadist movement, while regional affiliates “and to a lesser extent, small cells and individuals, will drive the global jihad agenda.”
Clapper’s 2013 assessment, delivered in March, said core al-Qaeda had now been degraded “to a point that the group is probably unable to carry out complex, large-scale attacks in the West.”
“However, the group has held essentially the same strategic goals since its initial public declaration of war against the United States in 1996, and to the extent that the group endures, its leaders will not abandon the aspiration to attack inside the United States,” he added.
The extent to which affiliates like AQAP enjoy operational independence has long been debated. One of 17 declassified internal al-Qaeda communications captured during the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and released to the U.S. Army’s Combating Terrorism Center, was a letter, possibly written by bin Laden, urging Wuhayshi to prioritize attacks on U.S. targets.
“We need to extend and develop our operations in America and not keep it limited to blowing up airplanes,” the letter stated.
Foiled AQAP plots in recent years include an attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound aircraft on Christmas Day 2009; and an attempt in Oct. 2010 to mail parcel bombs to the U.S., succeeding in getting them onboard commercial cargo planes bound for the U.S. before they were discovered.
According to RAND Corporation analyst Seth Jones, Zawahiri recently appointed Wuhayshi as general manager of al-Qaeda’s global network, effectively making him its number-two leader.
The Yemeni national has been a part of core al-Qaeda for many years. He served as bin Laden’s personal secretary until emerged as the top al-Qaeda figure in Yemen sometime after the former leader, Abu Ali al-Harithi, was killed in a November 2002 U.S. drone strike.
Wuhayshi was later captured, but was one of 23 men – among them 12 convicted al-Qaeda members including a man sentenced to death for the USS Cole bombing – who escaped from a Yemeni prison in an early 2006 break even more audacious that the recent ones. Interpol reported at the time that they escaped via a 460 foot-long tunnel “dug by the prisoners and co-conspirators outside.”
When AQAP’s formal launch was announced in 2009 Wuhayshi was named as its head. The State Department a year later added AQAP to the list of “foreign terrorist organizations” and designated Wuhayshi under an executive order that aims to disrupt funding to terrorists.