WASHINGTON — From Detroit to Afghanistan, scattered terrorists inspired and equipped by al-Qaida have attacked recently with surprising speed and worldwide reach, challenging the U.S. strategy of slowly and deliberately targeting the terrorist group's top leaders.
Counterterrorism officials and other experts say the botched Christmas Day airliner bombing and the Dec. 30 assault at a CIA base in Afghanistan demonstrate that al-Qaida and its supporters can react quickly when opportunities arise.
The new attacks, plotted by local militants as opposed to al-Qaida's core group, also warn of the possibility of new mini-fronts in the war on terrorism that could stretch American resources even more thinly across the globe. They come as U.S. forces are focusing on the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Qaida in Pakistan.
Al-Qaida's adaptability contrasts with the comparatively plodding pace of the U.S. military buildup in Afghanistan, which will take almost a full year.
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The recent attacks "are not necessarily evidence of a resurgent or more sophisticated al-Qaida, but of them taking advantage of targets of opportunity as they present themselves," said Matthew Levitt, a counterterrorism and intelligence expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies.
The airliner attack in Detroit appears to have been fermenting only since October, and the suicide bombing at the CIA base also appears to have been put together relatively quickly — over a matter of months in contrast to the years-long al-Qaida planning that went into the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
While the Pakistan-based core of al-Qaida has been degraded by missile strikes and other covert action since the 2001 attacks, the group is still adept at spreading propaganda and attracting recruits.
Over the past year, al-Qaida-linked groups in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa, spurred on by similar extremist views, have expanded beyond their regional turf wars to threaten regional governments. Now they threaten broader assaults against the West.
"Though al-Qaida as an organization remains on the ropes, with leadership, finances and legitimacy diminished and under constant pressure, the focus and attempt by one of its regional affiliates to attack the United States directly is a dangerous development," said Juan Zarate, a senior counterterrorism official in the Bush administration who is now senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
He said the new attacks put "a premium on containing if not destroying (al-Qaida) outposts in Yemen, Somalia, and North Africa." Zarate added that the incidents also show al-Qaida's intent to strengthen its global reach, and that the direction from core al-Qaida leaders remains targeting the United States.
John Brennan, President Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, said much the same thing Thursday, describing a mounting drumbeat among Yemen militants to get individuals to carry out attacks on the U.S. The airliner attack, he added, showed a new ability to move from aspiration to action.
The U.S. caught a break in this attack, which fizzled when Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly started a fire but failed to ignite explosives hidden in his clothing as the plane neared Detroit.