WASHINGTON — As Taliban militants push deeper into Pakistan's settled areas, foreign operatives of al-Qaida who had focused on plotting attacks against the West are seizing on the turmoil to sow chaos in Pakistan and to strengthen the hand of the militant Islamist groups there, according to U.S. and Pakistani intelligence officials.
One indication came April 19, when a truck parked inside an al-Qaida compound in South Waziristan, in Pakistan's tribal areas, erupted in a fireball when it was struck by a CIA missile.
U.S. intelligence officials say that the truck had been loaded with high explosives, apparently to be used as a bomb, and that while its ultimate target remains unclear, the bomb would have been more devastating than the suicide bombing at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad in September, which killed more than 50 people.
Al-Qaida's leaders — a predominantly Arab group of Egyptians, Saudis and Yemenis, as well as other nationalities like Uzbeks — have nurtured for years ties to Pakistani militant groups like the Taliban operating in the mountains of Pakistan. They have historically set their sights on targets loftier than those selected by the local militant groups, aiming for spectacular attacks against the West, but they may see new opportunity in the recent violence.
Intelligence officials say the Taliban advances in Swat and Buner, regions closer to the capital, Islamabad, than to the tribal areas, have already helped al-Qaida's recruiting of young fighters for regional attacks.
"They smell blood, and they are intoxicated by the idea of a jihadist takeover in Pakistan," said Bruce Riedel, a former analyst for the CIA who led the Obama administration's policy review of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
It remains unlikely that Islamic militants could seize power in Pakistan, given the strength of Pakistan's military, according to U.S. intelligence analysts. But a senior U.S. intelligence official expressed concern that recent successes by the Taliban in extending territorial gains could foreshadow the creation of "mini-Afghanistans" around Pakistan that would allow militants even more freedom to plot attacks.
U.S. government officials and terrorism experts said that al-Qaida's increasing focus on a local strategy was partly born from necessity, as the CIA's intensifying airstrikes have reduced the group's ability to hit targets in the West. The United States has conducted 16 drone strikes so far this year, according to U.S. officials, compared with 36 strikes in all of 2008.
The al-Qaida operatives are foreigners inside Pakistan, and experts say the group's leaders, like Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, appear to be wary of claiming credit for the violence in the country, which could create popular backlash against the group.