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Are al Qaeda capacities on the rise?

Are al Qaeda capacities on the rise?

A series of bomb scares and plots in Europe — combined with a stepped-up campaign against jihadists in Pakistan — reminds us once again of the threat posed by al Qaeda and the groups that support its ideology.

Let’s start with Europe where France, perhaps because of its vote to ban the Islamic veil in public, has become a special target for the extremists. The bomb scares began on Sept. 14, when a Metro station and the Eiffel Tower were evacuated, and have continued since then with three further evacuations of both Metro stations and the Eiffel Tower, the last of which occurred just yesterday. France’s security threat warning was raised to "reinforced red," the second highest possible level, and French officials announced that they were searching for a female suicide bomber who might attempt to attack public transportation. Counterterrorism officials in France linked the threats to al Qaeda’s branch in North Africa (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghab, or AQIM) as well as to sleeper cells in France that were activated by extremists arriving from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The threat is not confined to France. Officials told the Wall Street Journal about an extensive plot emanating from Pakistan that targets at least the U.K. and Germany as well as France, and might involve an attack in the United States as well. The size and scope of the plot makes it, according to these officials, the most serious threat to the West in many years. Experts and officials fear that the jihadists might be planning a Mumbai-style attack, where teams of paramilitary attackers could fan out across a city killing hundreds or even thousands and paralyze an entire country. The U.S. response to this potential attack has been a stepped up campaign against extremists in Northern Pakistan with the Haqqani network, a group with long-standing personal ties to Bin Laden, as the particular target.

Pakistan itself faces an even greater danger from the jihadist groups that have made that country their base, as the timely work of Pakistani law enforcement and counter-terrorism officials shows.  Over the past few months nearly 150,000 pounds of explosives and hundreds of sophisticated weapons have been seized from members of al Qaeda and affiliated groups in just two cities — Lahore and Karachi; enough bomb material and other weaponry to carry out dozens of Mumbai attacks and kill thousands.

These plots and threats undercut the argument recently made by the current Administration about the size and capabilities of al Qaeda. In June, CIA director Leon Panetta stated that there were fewer than 50-100 al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Michael Leiter, the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, echoed Panetta in a speech to the Aspen Group, adding that there were only an additional 300 al Qaeda members in Pakistan and that the group was weaker than it had ever been since 2001 (although he was quick to say that it was not harmless). Richard Holbrooke at the same time said that al Qaeda had been severely degraded and was under intense pressure. No administration could ever afford to state publicly that al Qaeda is not a threat, but there is hardly any other way to read the clear message from these high-ranking officials.

Here’s the question for the administration and the intelligence upon which their statements are based: If al Qaeda has been so degraded and so few of the group were left alive in June, how has it been able to regenerate itself enough in just three months to plan and organize an attack in four countries while accumulating 150,000 pounds of explosives for multiple paramilitary attacks in Pakistan?