WASHINGTON (AFP) - Al-Qaeda is believed to have established compounds inside Pakistan to train small groups of operatives for possible attacks in the West, a US official said.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the compounds had been detected over the past year in a semi-autonomous tribal area along the mountainous border with Afghanistan.
The compounds are "not big ones. These are small," the official told AFP. "They are not like the big camps that they had seen in Afghanistan previously."
But they were being used to train groups of 10 to 20 people at a time for what were believed to be operations in the West, particularly in Western Europe, the official said.
The Pakistani ambassador to the United States, Mahmud Ali Durrani, played down the developments.
"There may be an odd place. And when we find out we take it out. We have done that recently," he said in an interview with CNN. "But saying they have reestablished themselves, and there are a lot of compounds, and they have rejuvenated. That is incorrect."
The compounds suggest that Al-Qaeda, once seen as having been reduced to a largely inspirational role in an increasingly dispersed, decentralized international jihadist movement, is rebuilding its capacity to mount international operations.
The US government is concerned about a stream of Muslims with British passports traveling between Europe and Pakistan as a source of recruits for Al-Qaeda operations, the US official said.
In the intelligence community's most recent public threat assessment, former director of national intelligence John Negroponte told Congress January 11 that Al-Qaeda's core elements continue to plot attacks against the United States and other targets.
"And they continue to maintain active connections and relationships that radiate outward from their leaders' secure hideout in Pakistan to affiliates throughout the Middle East, northern Africa and Europe," he said.
A sharp increase and timeliness of public messages by Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda's number two, is among the indications that the group has reconstituted its command and control over networks of operatives, the official said.
That's part of his command and control -- how he communicates," the official said.
The New York Times, which first reported the new developments, said the compounds were operated under the loose command of groups of Arab, Pakistani and Afghan militants allied with Al-Qaeda.
According to the Times, with cited US analysts, they receive guidance from their commanders and Zawahri. Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden appeared to have little direct involvement, the Times said.
The concerns over Al-Qaeda's resurgence coincides with a major comeback by the Taliban, which has used safe havens in the border areas to mount its bloodiest offensive in five years in Afghanistan last year.
The US official said that the Al-Qaeda developments were separate from and not to be confused with the Taliban's activities in Afghanistan.
But the Taliban threat to Afghanistan has refocused US attention on weak Pakistani controls over its tribal areas along the border, and a recent peace deal with tribal leaders in North Waziristan that US military officials say was followed by a sharp increase in cross-border attacks.
The Times said intense debate within the administration failed to resolve a dilemma over what to do.
Some in the Pentagon advocate air strikes on the camps and while others in the State Department worry that too much pressure will undermine the government of President Pervez Musharraf.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates traveled to Islamabad last week to discuss the situation on the border with Musharraf, and how they could work together to deal a setback to both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda next spring.