Al Qaeda Builds a 'Shadow Army'; New Force Bedevils U.S. Efforts to Pacify Afghanistan

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Al Qaeda has reorganized its notorious paramilitary formations, setting the stage for a dramatic comeback. Formerly known as Brigade 055, the military unit has been rebuilt into a larger, more effective fighting unit known as the Lashkar al Zil, or the Shadow Army, a senior U.S. intelligence official told me.

The Shadow Army is active primarily in Pakistan's tribal areas, and in eastern and southern Afghanistan, several U.S. military and intelligence officials said on condition of anonymity. The force is well trained and equipped, and has defeated the Pakistani Army in engagements in North and South Waziristan, Bajaur, Peshawar, Khyber, and Swat. In Afghanistan, the Shadow Army has attacked Coalition and Afghan forces throughout the country.

The Shadow Army has been instrumental in the Taliban's consolidation of power in Pakistan's tribal areas and in the Northwest Frontier Province, a senior U.S. intelligence official told me. They are also behind the Taliban's successes in eastern and southern Afghanistan. They are helping to pinch Kabul.

Afghan and Pakistan-based Taliban forces have integrated elements of their forces into the Shadow Army, especially the Tehrik-e-Taliban and Haqqani Network, the official continued. It is considered a status symbol for groups to be a part of the Shadow Army. The Tehrik-e-Taliban is the Pakistani Taliban movement led by Baitullah Mehsud. The Haqqani Network straddles the Afghan-Pakistani border and has been behind some of the most high-profile attacks in Afghanistan.

The Shadow Army's effectiveness has placed the group in the crosshairs of the U.S. air campaign in Pakistan's tribal areas. In October 2008, the United States killed Khalid Habib al Shami, the leader of the Shadow Army, in a strike on a compound in North Waziristan.

The Shadow Army has a clear-cut military structure, a U.S. military intelligence officer said. A senior al Qaeda military leader is in command, while experienced officers command the brigades and subordinate battalions and companies. There are three or four brigades, including the re-formed Brigade 055 and several other Arab brigades. At its peak prior to the U.S. invasion in 2001, the 055 Brigade had an estimated 2,000 soldiers and officers in the ranks. The rebuilt units consist of Saudis, Yemenis, Egyptians, North Africans and Iraqis, as well as former members of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guards. At present, the 055 Brigade has completely reformed and is surpassing pre-2001 standards, an official said. The other brigades are also considered well trained.

The blending of the Taliban and al Qaeda units has made distinctions between the groups somewhat meaningless. The line between the Taliban and al Qaeda is increasingly blurred, especially from a command-and-control perspective, a military intelligence official said. Are Faqir Mohammed, Baitullah Mehsud, Hakeemullah Mehsud, Ilyas Kashmiri, Siraj Haqqani, and all the rest 'al Qaeda'? Probably not in the sense that they maintain their own independent organizations, but the alliance is essentially indistinguishable at this point except at a very abstract level.

The Taliban have begun an ideological conversion to Wahhabism, the radical form of Sunni Islam practiced by al Qaeda, further cementing ties between the two groups. …