The plot to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight over American soil on Christmas Day demonstrates a new and lethal ability by a branch of the Al Qaeda to attack the United States directly, the New York Times quotes both government and independent counter-terrorism specialists, as saying.
According to the daily, American officials till now had concerns about the capability of Qaeda affiliates to strike in North Africa, Yemen and Iraq, and remained confident that these groups -- unlike Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda in Pakistan -- could not threaten the United States itself.
That assessment has now changed, as American intelligence officials say Qaeda operatives in Yemen trained and equipped a 23-year-old Nigerian man to evade airport security measures and ignite a powerful explosive on a commercial airliner.
"Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has grown in confidence and seems to be developing a capability beyond the other Al Qaeda nodes," said Richard Barrett, a British former intelligence officer now monitoring the Al Qaeda and the Taliban for the United Nations, who visited Yemen two weeks ago.
The thwarted attack on an Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight underscores how the Obama administration must now defend the United States from attacks conceived in multiple havens abroad.
"This is the canary in the coal mine. The regional satellites are seen as platforms for the Al Qaeda's global agenda," said Juan Carlos Zarate, a top counter-terrorism official under President George W. Bush.
Last month, federal officials unsealed terrorism-related charges against men they say were important actors in a recruitment effort that led roughly 20 young Americans to join the Shabab, a violent insurgent group in Somalia with ties to the Al Qaeda.
Law enforcement officials fear that the recruits, who hold American passports, could be tapped to return to the United States to carry out attacks here, though so far there is no evidence of such plots.
"We think of core Al Qaeda in Pakistan as a very potent group, but not huge. But if you add the affiliates that are actively targeting us, it becomes a much bigger number," said Daniel L Byman, a former intelligence analyst.
American officials are of the view that terrorist groups in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen are now communicating more frequently and trying to coordinate their actions.
American and European counter-terrorism experts, however, say the ability and expertise of the Qaeda satellites are still limited.
A report by Dutch counterterrorism specialists issued Wednesday, for example, concluded that the planning and preparation for the failed attack against the Northwest Airlines flight was "fairly professional, but its execution was amateurish".
And the groups' effectiveness often hinges greatly on the personalities of their leaders.
By design as well as necessity, the plots hatched by Al Qaeda's regional affiliates are typically smaller and less spectacular than, say, the Al Qaeda's failed plans to blow up several airliners over the Atlantic in 2006.But in setting their sights lower and relying on lone suicide bombers, rather than complicated plots with several confederates, these Qaeda affiliates may also pose a threat that is harder to thwart, as the Christmas Day incident demonstrated.