US: al-Qaida regaining strength; accounts for increased Afghan attacks – Metro US

US: al-Qaida regaining strength; accounts for increased Afghan attacks

WASHINGTON – Al-Qaida has rebuilt some of its pre-Sept. 11 capabilities from remote hiding places in Pakistan, leading to a jump in attacks last year in that country and neighbouring Afghanistan, the Bush administration said Wednesday.

Attacks in Pakistan doubled between 2006 and 2007 and the number of fatalities quadrupled, the U.S. State Department said in its annual report on terrorism.

In Afghanistan, the number of attacks rose 16 per cent, to 1,127 incidents last year, it said.

The report said attacks in Iraq dipped slightly between 2006 and 2007, but still accounted for 60 per cent of worldwide terrorism fatalities, including 17 of the 19 Americans who were killed in such attacks last year. The other two were killed in Afghanistan.

More than 22,000 people died in terrorist operations around the world in 2007, eight per cent more than in 2006, although the overall number of attacks fell, the report says.

The report once again accused Iran, a familiar target of Washington, as being the world’s “most active” state sponsor of terrorism.

Iran is accused of supporting Palestinian extremists, as well as insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq, where it says elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps continued to provide militants with weapons, training and funding.

“In this way, Iranian government forces have been responsible for attacks on coalition forces,” State Department counterterrorism co-ordinator Dell Dailey told reporters.

Iranian forces are also giving weapons and financial aid to the Taliban in Afghanistan, he said.

About 13,600 non-combatants were killed in 2007 in Iraq, the report says, adding the high number could be attributed to a 50 per cent increase in the number of suicide bombings. Suicide car bombings were up 40 per cent and suicide bombings outside of vehicles climbed 90 per cent over 2006, it added.

“The ability of these attackers to penetrate large concentrations of people and then detonate their explosives may account for the increase in lethality of bombings in 2007,” the report says.

In Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, al-Qaida and its affiliates remain “the greatest terrorist threat to the United States and its partners” despite ongoing efforts to combat followers of Osama bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, according to the report. It says Zawahiri has emerged as the group’s “strategic and operational planner.”

“It has reconstituted some of its pre-9-11 operational capabilities through the exploitation of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, replacement of captured or killed operational lieutenants, and the restoration of some central control by its top leadership, in particular Ayman al-Zawahiri,” it says.

But Dailey stressed that al-Qaida is still weaker overall than it was before Sept. 11, 2001.

The report claimed a primary reason for al-Qaida’s resurgence was a ceasefire the Pakistani government reached with tribal leaders last year.

That truce has since ended but Pakistan’s new government is now renegotiating a similar agreement that some fear could have similar results and further undermine efforts to battle al-Qaida.

The earlier ceasefire and instability in the region appear “to have provided al-Qaida leadership greater mobility and ability to conduct training and operational planning, particularly that targeting Western Europe and the United States,” the report said.

“Numerous senior al-Qaida operatives have been captured or killed, but al-Qaida leaders continued to plot attacks and to cultivate stronger operational connections that radiated outward from Pakistan to affiliates throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe,” it said.

Of particular concern were al-Qaida sympathizers who attacked a UN building in Algeria, killing more than 40 people and wounding more than 150 last year, the report said.

In Pakistan, the State Department recorded more than 45 suicide bombings in 2007, up from a total of just 22 such incidents between 2002 and 2006.

Among those logged last year were the December attack that killed former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and an October attack on her homecoming parade that killed more than 130 people, the worst suicide attack in Pakistani history.