Al Qaeda’s new tactic is to seize shortcuts

Al Qaeda and its affiliates have adapted their tactics to emphasize speed and probability of success over spectacle, U.S. intelligence officials believe, a shift in strategy that poses problems for spy agencies that were reorganized in recent years to stop large-scale attacks like those of Sept. 11, 2001.

The new emphasis is seen as a significant departure for a terrorist network that had focused on sophisticated plots involving synchronized strikes on multiple targets, and teams of operatives coordinating across international borders.

An examination of recent plots, including the bombing attempt on a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day, has convinced U.S. counter-terrorism analysts that Al Qaeda is becoming more opportunistic, using fewer operatives and dramatically shrinking the amount of planning and preparation that goes into an attack.

In interviews and public testimony, U.S. officials have voiced concern that though the more modest schemes are less likely to lead to mass casualties, they are considerably more difficult to thwart.

“What is particularly concerning . . . is the compactness and maybe the efficiency that they are applying to this process,” Garry Reid, the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for special operations and combating terrorism, said in congressional testimony last week. “It really cuts underneath our ability to detect it and do something about it; the tighter they compress that, the harder it gets for us.”

U.S. officials said that Al Qaeda may have taken the new approach reluctantly, weakened by a campaign of drone strikes on its base region in Pakistan, and frustrated by its inability in the last nine years to orchestrate a follow-on strike of similar magnitude to that of Sept. 11. But if Al Qaeda had misgivings about downscaled ambitions, U.S. officials said, it probably was emboldened by the reaction in the United States to the Christmas Day plot, even though it failed.

The lesson Al Qaeda probably took was that, “ ‘Jeez, the damn bomb didn’t go off and the Americans are still going out of their minds,’ ” a senior U.S. counter-terrorism official said, describing the political fallout for President Obama, as well as finger-pointing among U.S. intelligence agencies.

Officials emphasize that they do not believe Al Qaeda has abandoned efforts to orchestrate large-scale attacks. But, the senior U.S. counter-terrorism official said, Al Qaeda and affiliated groups are moving “away from what we are used to, which are complex, ambitious, multilayered plots.”

Instead, the network is showing just how quickly and seamlessly it can deploy operatives to other nations.

New evidence of this adaptation surfaced recently with the release of a longer version of a video recorded by a Jordanian physician shortly before he carried out a suicide attack on a base used by the CIA in Khowst province in Afghanistan. The bomber, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal Balawi, had been sent into Pakistan by the Jordanian intelligence service as an informant, but was working with Al Qaeda.

Upon his arrival, Balawi said, local operatives swiftly formed a shura, or council, to devise a plan for how to use him. At first, the aim was to kidnap a Jordanian intelligence officer. But when Balawi learned that he was being summoned to a meeting with members of the CIA, the shura quickly developed a deadlier scheme.

“We planned for something but got a bigger gift,” Balawi said in the video.

Balawi told CIA operatives that he could provide the coordinates of Al Qaeda’s No. 2, Ayman Zawahiri. On Dec. 30, when Balawi arrived at the U.S. compound, he detonated a device that killed seven CIA employees and contractors, as well as a Jordanian intelligence officer.

U.S. officials have expressed dismay over how much detail Balawi had about the CIA presence at the meeting, but also over how swiftly and expertly his handlers were able to improvise a new plan.

Similarly, the Christmas Day plot showed how quickly Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen was able to devise an operation taking advantage of the arrival in its midst of a Nigerian with a U.S. visa. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab arrived in Yemen in August, and within a matter of months was on a flight to the United States with a bomb sewn into his underwear.

But Al Qaeda also is running risks by using operatives with less training, said Bruce Riedel, a CIA veteran and counter-terrorism expert. Farouk fumbled with his device and was subdued by other passengers.

“It looks like he panicked,” Riedel said, noting that a similar device was used successfully in an attack on a Saudi official last year. “That’s the downside of seizing these moments of opportunity -- you can end up with people who weren’t up to the task.”

U.S. officials said they had not seen a large-scale plot since 2006, when British authorities derailed a plan to detonate liquid explosives on 10 airliners bound for Canada and the U.S.

More typical of the emerging trend is the case of Najibullah Zazi, an Afghanistan native who pleaded guilty last month to charges of training in Pakistan to carry out a suicide attack on the New York City subway system.

“Zazi was dangerous and could have killed a lot of people,” the senior U.S. counter-terrorism official said. “But he doesn’t reflect Al Qaeda in its heyday.”

U.S. intelligence agencies are struggling to stay abreast of the evolving threat. The National Counterterrorism Center expects to add as many as 50 analysts this year focused exclusively on tracking emerging threat data that previously might have been overlooked when the emphasis was on trying to detect and prevent a mass- casualty plot.

The smaller scale operations tend not to involve multiple targets or teams of would-be terrorists.

“But it does involve something that is much harder to penetrate,” the American counter-terrorism official said. “One guy who has no record of terrorism who is given a bomb is a hell of a lot harder to figure out than 25 guys in London manufacturing hydrogen peroxide explosives.”