Al Qaeda has returned to the front pages with a deadly attack by an affiliate (al-Shabab) in Uganda that killed over seventy people, and the arrest on July 8 of a jihadist cell in Norway connected to al Qaeda. I'll write more later about the Uganda attacks, but the arrests are also important, and provide a significant glimpse into where we are at in the Long War.
The Norwegian plot aimed to attack that country's parliament, and consisted of at least three individuals who had been under surveillance for a year. This was apparently just the tip of a big iceberg, however, since the arrests were almost immediately connected to two other jihadist plots, in Britain and the United States, by law enforcement officials. The British jihadist group had been arrested first, in April 2009, and had allegedly been within days of carrying out a suicide bombing of shopping centers in Manchester. The U.S. plot was led by Najibullah Zazi, who pled guilty early this year to planning to bomb the New York City subway system in the fall of 2009. Government officials in all three countries tied the planned attacks to al Qaeda's central leadership, and not to the affiliates that have recently attempted attacks in the Untied States (such as the would-be Christmas day bomber).
These plots have at least three features that deserve closer attention. First there is the size and sophistication of the cells. Zazi's group consisted of at least three suicide bombers designated to carry out the actual attacks, and perhaps as many as six other people -- some in Pakistan and Manchester -- involved at various stages of the planning. Zazi and his fellow jihadists apparently did at least some of the work for their attack far from New York City -- in Colorado -- and managed to elude law enforcement detection until the very last moment. The Manchester group was also very large (11 people were arrested and charged) and eluded detection until just days before the attacks were to be carried out. Meanwhile, the three people charged with planning to bomb the Norwegian parliament were arrested in two countries, Germany, and Norway.
Another significant element is the ethnicity of the plotters: Most of the Manchester arrestees were born in Pakistan and were in Britain on student visas; the Norwegian plotters were members of a Uighur jihadist group; and the Zazi group consisted of Pashtuns. These particular ethnicities might have been chosen because they would be least likely to trigger the interest of law enforcement in Britain (which is most concerned about British-born jihadists) and the United States (primarily focused on threats from the Middle East), while few people have argued before this that any Uighurs have a significant connection to al Qaeda or any interest in attacks outside China.
Finally, the three plots demonstrate the ability of al Qaeda to coordinate attacks on both a regional and global scale. All of the plots reached across national lines and included individuals in multiple countries working together to kill innocents in three different large cities. The direct involvement of al Qaeda leaders in the planning and coordination of the plots is also noteworthy, as news reports have said that the groups were connected to two al Qaeda members with global reach, a Somali known as Saleh who ran al Qaeda's external attack unit, and Adnan Shukrijumah, a rather mysterious figure who has been tied to multiple disrupted al Qaeda plots in the past few years.
But the most important thing that the arrests and plots suggest is that al Qaeda is not the spent force some claim it is. Recent statements by U.S. counterterrorism officials have argued that al Qaeda has been deterred, disrupted, and is "on the run." These sophisticated and wide-ranging threats suggest that we might, rather, be on the leading edge of a series of attacks planned and coordinated by a truly globalized threat.
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