Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Foreign militants yearn for Pakistan’s training camps

From Reuters:

LONDON: Turbulent Pakistan has replaced Iraq as the place to go for militants bent on striking the West, but the threat of US attacks means al Qaeda recruits may spend more time out of sight in a classroom than on an assault course.

Long a favoured destination of British militants of Pakistani descent, Pakistan’s northwestern tribal areas are now attracting Arabs and Europeans of Arab ancestry who three years ago would probably have gone to Iraq to fight US forces.

With the Iraq war apparently winding down, security sources say, the lure for these young men is to fight US forces in neighbouring Afghanistan or to gain the skills to carry out attacks back home in the Middle East, Africa or the West.

One consequence: Western armies in Afghanistan increasingly face the possibility of having to fight their own compatriots.

These foreign militants are likely to feature in Wednesday’s meetings between US President Barack Obama, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Obama wants to end the use of Pakistan’s tribal zones as a staging area for al Qaeda activities in support of the hardline Islamist Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as their role as a training ground for new attacks around the world.

Dennis Blair, Obama’s national intelligence director, said in February the primary threat from Europe-based extremists stemmed from members of al Qaeda and its affiliates ‘who returned from training in Pakistan to conduct attacks in the West.’

‘We remain concerned about an influx of Western recruits into the (Pakistani) tribal areas since mid-2006,’ he said.

Western officials estimate there are several hundred non-Afghan foreign militants training in the tribal areas at any one time. That is probably more than three years ago, although the foreigners are outnumbered by Pakistanis and Afghans undergoing similar training at the same, or similar, facilities.

Little detailed information is known in the West about the training operation, and analysts differ on whether the inflow of militants has risen or just held steady in recent months.

But the assumption among many Western officials is that US success in Iraq since 2006 has diverted some recruits for the anti-Western cause to the Pakistan-Afghan theatre.

Military training or adventure holiday?

US General David McKiernan told Reuters in October 2008 that intelligence had picked up the presence in Afghanistan of Chechens, Arabs, Uzbeks, Punjabis and even Europeans.

Some were old-time residents of neighbouring Pakistan’s rebellious border regions, but others were new arrivals.

Richard Barrett, coordinator of the US’s al Qaeda-Taliban monitoring team, said that the number of foreigners going for training in northwest Pakistan appeared to be rising, but might not exceed ‘a few hundred all told.’

‘Training over the last couple of years has typically taken place in small compounds which you find throughout the area of northwest Pakistan, rather than in large purpose-built camps,’ he said. ‘I have also heard of it taking place in apartments or houses in places like Karachi. It is hard to spot and quantify.’

Of Britons, Barrett said: ‘It seems that a fair proportion of the UK volunteers return home, which may reflect their attitude towards the training as only half-serious — an adventure holiday or bragging rights back home.’

‘But it is very hard to distinguish between the serious and the less serious, and of course to identify people who go with one intention and return with another.’

Western officials say the move to more discreet locations has been prompted by a series of missile attacks by US unmanned aircraft on suspected al Qaeda bases in recent months, which have killed about 350 people over the past year.

The content of training may also be changing, with as much or more emphasis on suicide bombing as on guerrilla war, curbing the need for assault course-style camps, some analysts say.

In Berlin, security analyst Berndt Georg Thamm said the flow of militants to Pakistan ‘has grown over the past few years.’

He cited German officials as saying that since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, about 140 people from Germany had gone to training camps in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region. Some 60 to 80 of them had come back to Germany.

Raphael Perl, Head of the Action Against Terrorism Unit at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said risks remained even if trainees did nothing on returning home.

‘If I had to give a gut per centage, I’d say 60 per cent do nothing with the training. They just come home. But at some point they may be contacted to do a favour for somebody.’ — Reuters.

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