The militant Islamist groups based in the rugged Afghanistan-Pakistan border region — from al-Qaida to the Taliban — have apparently forged new "connections," according to U.S. intelligence officials, and may now be working together to target U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
The growing collaboration between the militant groups was highlighted by the Dec. 30 suicide attack on the CIA base at Khost, Afghanistan, where seven CIA employees were killed. The bomber, a Jordanian doctor believed by CIA officers to be an intelligence informant, was in fact a double agent loyal to the very Islamist groups about whom he was allegedly providing information.
In a video prepared before his attack, the bomber — a Jordanian physician identified as Hammam Khalil al-Balawi — said his suicide attack was meant to avenge a U.S. missile strike last August that killed Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistan branch of the Taliban. Seated next to Balawi in the video was Hakimullah Mehsud, who took charge of the Pakistan Taliban after Baitullah's death.
The CIA operatives working at the Khost base had been responsible for choosing the targets of missile strikes launched from U.S. unmanned aircraft or drones. Hakimullah Mehsud himself was reportedly targeted by a U.S. drone sometime after his appearance in the video.
The video strongly suggested that the Pakistan Taliban are now prepared to sponsor or launch attacks against U.S. forces outside their previous zone of operations, perhaps with the support of allied Islamist groups.
"This ishtishaadi [suicide] attack will be the first of the revenge operations against the Americans and their drone teams outside the Pakistani borders," Balawi said in his videotaped message [emphasis added].
Before the appearance of the videotape, analysts had speculated that the Khost attack was probably the work of a hard-line branch of the Afghan Taliban led by Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Siraj. The area around Khost has long been a Haqqani zone of operations, and the Haqqani network has been held responsible for many attacks against U.S. forces in that region. The Pakistan Taliban, known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, on the other hand, has been focused almost exclusively on targets inside Pakistan, largely involving Pakistani government facilities.
"If it was the Pakistan Taliban that did it, this would be the first significant operation of any consequence that they executed outside of Pakistan's territory," says Christine Fair, a Pakistan expert at Georgetown University.
Balawi's pointed suggestion that more TTP operations were forthcoming "outside the Pakistani borders" has led analysts to speculate that the group is now working more closely with the Haqqani network or other branches of the Afghan Taliban, and perhaps with al-Qaida as well. The investigation of Balawi's dealings with militant groups before the Dec. 30 attack is "a matter of extremely high priority," according to a senior U.S. intelligence official.
Among the questions being considered is whether and how the militant groups in the Afghan-Pakistan border region have "splintered, reconstituted and reconnected," the intelligence official says. "We have probably been less attentive to the connections," he acknowledges.
A Single Enemy
Concerns about new links between the militant groups were reinforced by a statement made by Siraj Haqqani in a recent appearance on Al-Jazeera television, an Arabic-language news network based in Qatar.
"Thank God the mujahideen are getting more advanced," Haqqani said. "At the beginning of this war, the coordination between our fighters was useless. But now there are so many attacks that even we can't count them ourselves."
The term mujahideen — or holy warriors — in this case could encompass all the militant Islamist groups active in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, from al-Qaida to the various branches of the Taliban. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on his recent trip to Pakistan, highlighted what he called a "syndicate" of terrorist groups, including the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban.
"What we may have to come to realize is that the distinction between the two insurgent groups and the distinction between these insurgent groups and al-Qaida is much more flexible than perhaps we've described them from here in Washington," says Andrew Exum, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security who monitors military and intelligence developments in the Afghan-Pakistan region.
If all the militant groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region begin working together, they should be capable of more deadly attacks. But this trend could also present Pakistani authorities with a new challenge. They have tried until now to divide the Pakistan and Afghan Taliban, targeting the Pakistan branch while accommodating the Afghan branch. If those groups now come together, the Pakistani approach may have to change.
"If the Pakistanis start to see no difference between the Afghan insurgent groups and those insurgent groups that threaten the Pakistani state, that could be a positive thing," Exum says.
The United States and Pakistan in this case would see themselves as facing a single enemy, meaning prospects for U.S.-Pakistan cooperation should improve.