Al-Qaida deputy believed trapped by Pakistani troops

Al-Zawahri may be quarry in fierce border fighting

March 19, 2004|By Josh Meyer and Greg Miller | Josh Meyer and Greg Miller,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Pakistani troops, operating in the rugged terrain on the border with Afghanistan, traded heavy fire yesterday with foreign fighters who U.S. officials said might be defending al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden's longtime second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri.

If al-Zawahri were captured or killed, the U.S. officials said, it would mark perhaps the most significant victory yet in the U.S.-led effort to crush the al-Qaida terrorist network.

Islamabad officials said Pakistani forces were to resume their assault against an estimated 200 heavily armed foreign fighters by daybreak in the mountains of the South Waziristan tribal region, long believed to be the hideout of al-Qaida's top two leaders.

Casualties have been reported on both sides in the fighting, which began Tuesday and is part of an offensive against al-Qaida launched jointly by the Pakistani government and U.S. forces just across the border in Afghanistan. Pakistani officials also said some fighters had been taken into custody.

The Bush administration declined to comment publicly late yesterday on whether al-Zawahri was the target of the operation.

"We don't know anything new," President Bush told reporters.

But on background, several U.S. officials acknowledged that Pakistan had shared intelligence with Washington suggesting that Zawahri was the "high value" target the foreign fighters were defending. In interviews, the U.S. officials, who declined to be identified, said their belief was based on more than the fact that the Pakistani troops had encountered unusually fierce resistance, but they said they could not provide details.

"That's the assumption of pretty much everybody here in the intelligence community," one official said. "But it's too early and too speculative to say anything for certain."

The official and others cautioned that initial reports about military confrontations on foreign soil are often speculative or wrong.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has refused to allow U.S. troops into the Pakistani border area, and U.S. intelligence and military officials said yesterday that no American troops, CIA operatives or other U.S. personnel were involved in the fighting. But they said surveillance aircraft patrolling the region were among a host of U.S. intelligence assets monitoring al-Qaida and Taliban movements and supporting Pakistani operations on the ground.

U.S. and Pakistani officials downplayed widespread media speculation that al-Zawahri had been positively identified as the quarry, and that he had been cornered by Pakistani forces in such a way that capture or even containment was imminent.

The mountain passes of South Waziristan and neighboring areas are often impenetrable and are riddled with secret al-Qaida tunnels and escape routes that could allow the foreign fighters to vanish during the night, even with forces on the ground and in planes flying overhead, U.S. and Pakistani officials said.

In recent weeks, thousands of U.S. and Pakistani troops, operating on both sides of the border, have intensified their efforts to capture al-Qaida's top leaders.

"Capturing Osama bin Laden would have enormous symbolic value. But capturing al-Zawahri ... would have enormous operational value," said Democratic Rep. Jane Harman of California, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, which receives classified briefings on the status of al-Qaida.

"I'm not going to reveal anything classified, but [al-Zawahri] is capable of spearheading terrorist operations for al-Qaida, the kind which we are seeing on a weekly basis," Harman said. "He is the closest confidant of bin Laden. He has a particular role as the top aide to bin Laden, which is also significant. And [if captured alive], he might be very helpful to us in finding bin Laden."

Al-Zawahri, 52, is credited perhaps even more than bin Laden with directing al-Qaida's anger toward the United States, as opposed to the Saudi Arabian government that expelled bin Laden. An Egyptian physician and Islamic scholar, he headed the Egyptian Islamic Jihad before merging that terrorist group with bin Laden's al-Qaida.

Since the merger, he and bin Laden have been virtually inseparable. Al-Zawahri is considered the group's spiritual leader and one of several top-ranking operational planners. He was indicted in the United States for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed at least 224 people, and U.S. officials suspect him of playing a central role in most other major al-Qaida attacks.

U.S. officials said there was no solid intelligence on whether Zawahri and bin Laden had been in contact recently or had traveled together, as they routinely did before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks against the United States.

Yesterday, Washington doubled the bounty on bin Laden, saying it would pay as much as $50 million for his capture.

In recent testimony on Capitol Hill, CIA Director George J. Tenet said bin Laden had gone "deep underground." Officials noted that only al-Zawahri's voice had appeared on taped messages from al-Qaida released in recent weeks.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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