May 1, 2009
Al Qaeda’s No. 2 thug has “emerged” as its operational leader after seven years on the run with the same $25 million bounty on his head as Osama Bin Laden.
Despite years of Bush administration claims that Ayman al-Zawahiri - an Egyptian doctor turned Bin Laden deputy - was on the lam with his boss and unable to exert control, the opposite is now true, a State Department report said Thursday.
“Al Qaeda has reconstituted some of its pre-9/11 operational capabilities” in Pakistan’s tribal safe haven on the Afghan border, replaced lost lieutenants and achieved “the restoration of some central control by its top leadership, in particular Ayman al-Zawahiri,” the annual Country Reports on Terrorism said.
“Although Bin Laden remains the group’s ideological figurehead, Zawahiri has emerged as Al Qaeda’s strategic and operational planner,” the report added.
The new assessment wasn’t a surprise to terror experts, since Zawahiri put out 12 audio and video messages last year and four this year - including one last week.
“As important as it is to neutralize Al Qaeda’s top leaders, you also have to maintain an unblinking focus on disrupting its operations,” said Kenneth Wainstein, a top George W. Bush homeland security adviser now with the O’Melveny and Myers law firm.
The U.S. has staged more than 40 missile attacks in the tribal areas of Pakistan - principally in North and South Waziristan - since June. At least eight mid-level Al Qaeda leaders have been killed in the attacks by unmanned U.S. drones, which have sparked relatively little backlash by the government of President Asif Ali Zardari.
U.S. intelligence officials have said Bin Laden is too concerned with his own personal security to oversee Al Qaeda plots, while Zawahiri has increasingly appeared to benefit from protection of current or former Pakistani army or intelligence operatives.
Earlier this year, Team Bush’s top intelligence expert said the more Zawahiri exposed himself in Al Qaeda’s propaganda recordings, the greater his personal risk that couriers might be traced back to him or that something caught on the audio or in the image would offer the CIA a fatal clue to his whereabouts.
“If (Zawahiri) stays real active, guess what fate he will suffer?” ex-Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell told reporters in January.
Still, McConnell added, “We’ve got them so isolated they’ve become ineffective.”
The State Department also reported that Al Qaeda has built “stronger operational ties” to terror groups in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, and its size is now “difficult to determine.”
- James Gordon MeekRead more: