Are Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) still the prime destination for jihad-minded foreign fighters from the West? The short answer is that we really don't know because empirical data is hard to find. Anecdotal evidence referenced by Western security officials, researchers, and even jihadists does suggest, however, that the FATA just might have lost its magnetic appeal. If so, we need to ensure that this positive development is not a fleeting one. And to determine the best way forward, we need to look at how and why it came to be.
But first, let's remember why this phenomenon matters. Foreign fighters, especially those emanating from the West, bolster terrorist and insurgent factions within conflict zones. Foreign fighters, as well as the bridge figures who recruit them, inspire, radicalize, and motivate individuals to the jihadi cause. Foreign fighters serve key operational and propaganda functions -- in essence, they provide both effect and affect. Their role makes them a threat to Western policy objectives. Together, their ability to return home, their Western passports, and their familiarity with potential targets they may select to attack make them a direct threat to Western security.
There is no shortage of examples of Westerners who trained in the FATA and then went on to execute (or attempt to execute) attacks against the West. Consider Najibullah Zazi, who planned to bomb the New York City subway but was thwarted by U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials. Or Faisal Shahzad, the so-called Times Square bomber, whose car bomb fortunately fizzled. Or Mohammad Sidique Khan, the ringleader of the 7/7 homicide/suicide bombings that killed more than 50 and wounded over 700 in London in 2005. Or Eric Breininger, a young German national featured in propaganda videos of the Islamic Jihad Union, who was ultimately killed in Waziristan. And the list goes on.
It's definitely good news that there may be a drop in the number of Western foreign fighters traveling to the FATA, but it should come as no surprise. First and foremost, military actions -- including the use of drones -- have made the environment less hospitable for those traveling to it. These military activities have had significant operational effects on al Qaeda (and associated entities) by disrupting pipelines to the region, activities of key facilitators, and training camps. The challenge now is to continue, consolidate, and solidify these gains.
Recent U.S. and allied military successes undoubtedly serve also as a strong deterrent. Think of it as suppressive fire: The more time al Qaeda and its ilk spend looking over their shoulders, the less time they have to train, plot, and execute terrorist attacks. And with al Qaeda senior leaders on their back heels, now is the time to exploit this unique window of counterterrorism opportunity by maintaining, if not accelerating, the operational tempo.