Public enemy number one: hunting Zawahiri

One year after the Abbottabad raid, al Qaeda’s mastermind is still loose. Bin Laden’s death has only made the search harder, reports Sami Yousafzai, Ron Moreau, and Daniel Klaidman

A YEAR after the death of Osama bin Laden, American special operators are training their sights on his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the former Egyptian Army surgeon widely regarded as the mastermind of major attacks against Americans and other targets. And forces loyal to Zawahiri, who affectionately call him ‘Glasses’ because of his trademark oversize spectacles, are determined to guard their leader.

Zawahiri’s safety was the main subject of conversation when several senior al Qaeda operatives and a handful of other militants sat down for a dinner meeting in North Waziristan six months ago, according to a well-placed Taliban source. Over a meal of mutton kebabs and pilau, the men expressed concerns about Zawahiri’s security in light of bin Laden’s bloody end. They said Zawahiri’s handlers and tribal hosts had strongly advised him “to move to a new place,” to stop using electronic devices, to limit his exposure by issuing fewer propaganda tapes, and to exercise extreme caution in dealing with couriers. “We are hoping he can avoid being captured by the US for at least 10 more years,” the source says.

Taliban and al Qaeda operatives who have met Zawahiri say he is highly respected in militant circles, both as a thinker and a doer. He’s not nearly as charismatic as bin Laden, but in some ways, he’s more important. Bin Laden was the face of terror, but Zawahiri is the mind: an important ideologue as well as an operational commander.

He’s under increasing pressure now to carry out a fresh act of headline-grabbing mayhem. “Zawahiri needs to terrorise in order to really cement his position as bin Laden’s long-term successor,” says Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official who has advised the Obama administration on counterterror policy.

Yet the new al Qaeda chief faces a dilemma: the more involved he gets in planning and propaganda, the more exposed he becomes. And he can’t conduct terror operations if he’s dead, much less serve as a symbol of al Qaeda resilience.

American intelligence on him is sketchy; the last time US agents are known to have had actionable intelligence on his whereabouts was in January 2006, when they learned that he had been invited to dinner in a compound on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. A Predator drone fired a salvo of Hellfire missiles at the compound, killing some 18 people. But Zawahiri was not among them.

“There are indicators that some elements of the Pakistani government may be protecting Zawahiri,” says a US intel official who did not want to be named.

At the moment, it would be politically fraught for American special operators and CIA agents to carry out an attack. Pakistan’s political and military leaders, humiliated and furious that Washington kept them in the dark about the bin Laden raid and other missions, have forbidden the United States from conducting drone strikes in their territory.

The militants who gathered for dinner near Miran Shah were still mourning bin Laden’s death at the time. They recalled the care he had taken to protect himself. Bin Laden’s trusted aide and courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, had devised ingenious ways to move his leader from one safe house to another in Pakistan.

He had hidden bin Laden inside a large box that was fitted at the bottom of Pakistan’s brightly coloured transport trucks. The box would be stuffed under cargoes of cement, wheat flour and rice sacks, or even under a noisy collection of goats, sheep, or chickens.

The men blamed the courier, a Pakistani Pashtun from the tribal areas, for bin Laden’s death. “He was not a traitor, but his mistakes led to the great sheik’s death.” The blunders included driving the same car every time he went to the compound inside the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad and using a cellphone that could be monitored.

Zawahiri is more connected to day-to-day operations than bin Laden had been in his final years. He was involved, for instance, in the 2005 bombing of the London Underground and in the assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007. It seems he also played a role in deploying a Jordanian double agent to bomb a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan, in 2009. The CIA operatives who were killed believed they were about to receive key intelligence on Zawahiri’s whereabouts.

Zawahiri can take heart from the fact that as pressure has grown on al Qaeda’s central command, affiliated groups have sprung up around the globe. But like bin Laden before him, Zawahiri is now an important symbol — of either the success or failure of the global jihad.

It’ll be much easier to mount an operation against Zawahiri if the United States has the support — explicit or otherwise — of Pakistan. Drones can learn a lot from the sky, but the region is large, and human intelligence is vital. The Pakistanis could help get that, but cooperation requires trust-on both sides.

There is none. “This time it’s the lowest it has ever gone,” says retired Maj Gen Mahmud Ali Durrani, a former ambassador to Washington. He blames both sides. “We have failed at convincing America that we are with you, that we want to get rid of these militants,” says Durrani. Yet Pakistan believes the United States does not respect the country’s sovereignty and treats it like a vassal state.

The distrust only got worse after the bin Laden raid. Barack Obama, fearing a leak, ordered that Pakistan be kept in the dark. If the US gets Zawahiri in its sights, it won’t want to risk compromising an operation to take him out. The al Qaeda leader’s safest bet might be to hide as deep inside Pakistani territory as he can get.

Riedel believes he’s probably already there. “I think the CIA would be looking for something that looks an awful lot like Abbottabad,” he says.

“A safe house in an urban area near a military base. That’s been the signature of almost all of the senior Qaeda operatives who have been killed or captured.”

The problem for Zawahiri, however, is that “the CIA has demonstrated that it can break the code,” says Riedel. “Bin Laden actually practiced pretty good operational security, but Zawahiri has to take it up a notch. If I were him, I would be worried. I think we’ll find him, and I don’t think it will take 10 years.” Once again, Pakistan may learn about it only after the fact.

* 2012 Newsweek/Daily Beast


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