Experts: Militant training shifting
ULM, Germany – As al-Qaida regains strength in the badlands of the Pakistani-Afghan border, an increasing number of militants from mainland Europe are traveling to Pakistan to train and to plot attacks on the West, European and U.S. anti-terror officials say.
The emerging route, illuminated by alleged bomb plots dismantled in Germany and Denmark last month, represents a reconfiguration. In recent years, the global flow of Muslim fighters had shifted to the battlefields of Iraq after the loss of al-Qaida’s Afghan sanctuary in 2001.
“There have always been people going to Pakistan, but it is more frequent now,” said a senior French intelligence official who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on condition of anonymity. “There is a return. It is a cycle.”
Unlike Iraq, where foreign fighters plunge quickly into combat, recruits in Pakistan are more likely to be groomed for missions in the West. Those drawn to the Pakistani-Afghan border region today include European converts and militants from Arab, Turkish and North African backgrounds, investigators said.
“Pakistan worries me more than Iraq,” a top Belgian anti-terrorism official said. “It’s true that Iraq scares them a bit because many of them end up getting strapped up with the explosive belt right away. In Pakistan, they have time to be trained as operatives.”
But the path is not straight or easy. In the German case, at least a dozen suspects meandered among Quranic schools in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria, then traveled through Iran into Pakistan. Several suspects were detained by Pakistani authorities en route to training camps.
In the past, the main threat from that part of the world has involved young men from Britain’s large Pakistani diaspora targeting Britain and the United States. In half a dozen plots since 2003, British operatives trained in Pakistan, made contact with fugitive al-Qaida leaders and returned home to strike.
In contrast, extremists from North African and Arab immigrant communities in Germany, France, Spain and Italy have been more likely to join networks based in North Africa or the Iraq region.
But today, even small countries such as Belgium, Denmark and Switzerland have detected non-Pakistani extremists going to Pakistani training outposts, officials say. Pakistani immigrant communities in mainland Europe are smaller than Britain’s but could serve as conduits to the networks, police say.
In Spain, radical Pakistani imams and recruiters are muscling into predominantly North African mosques, a senior Spanish anti-terror official said. In Italy, Moroccan and Tunisian extremists communicate by Internet with extremists in Pakistan in an effort to show they are major players, an Italian anti-terrorism official said.