Al-Qaida said to renew itself by promoting, recruiting

Data on terrorist network emerge from recent arrest

August 10, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - A new portrait of al-Qaida's inner workings is emerging from the cache of information seized last month in Pakistan, as investigators begin to identify a new generation of operatives who appear to be filling the vacuum created when leaders were killed or captured, senior intelligence officials said yesterday.

Using computer records, e-mail addresses and other documents seized after the arrest of Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan last month in Pakistan, intelligence analysts say they are finding that al-Qaida's upper echelons are being filled by lower-ranking members and more recent recruits.

"They're a little bit of both," one official said, describing al-Qaida's new midlevel structure. "Some who have been around and some who have stepped up. They're reaching for their bench."

While the findings might result in a significant intelligence coup for the Bush administration and its allies in Britain, they also create a far more complex picture of al-Qaida's status than President Bush presents on the campaign trail.

For the past several months, the president has often claimed that much of al-Qaida's leadership has been killed or captured; the new evidence suggests that the organization is regenerating and bringing in new blood.

The new picture emerged from interviews with two officials who have been briefed on some of the details of the intelligence and analytical conclusions drawn from the information on computers seized after Khan's arrest.

But they did not identify the more senior al-Qaida leaders, and they said it was not yet clear to what extent Osama bin Laden still exercised control over the organization, either directly or through his chief deputy, Ayman Zawahiri.

Officials say they still do not have a clear picture of the structure that exists between Khan, who appeared to be responsible for communications, but not al-Qaida operations, and the group's upper echelons.

The new evidence suggests that al-Qaida has retained some elements of its previous centralized command and communications structure, using computer experts such as Khan to relay messages and directions, often encrypted, from senior leaders to subordinates in countries such as Britain, Turkey and Nigeria.

In the past, officials had a different view of al-Qaida. After the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, most American counterterrorism analysts believed that the group had been dispersed, was on the run and had been trying to regroup in a loosely affiliated collection of extremist groups.

Even so, it appears that al-Qaida is more resilient than was previously understood and has sought to find replacements for such operational commanders as Khalid Shaik Mohamed, Abu Zubayda and Walid Muhammad Salih bin Attash, known as Khallad, all of whom have been captured.

Bin Laden and Zawahiri are believed to be in hiding in the region along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Last month, American officials said they believed bin Laden was directing the threats.

The names of senior members of the terrorist network were not discussed by the intelligence officials, in part, they said, to avoid compromising efforts to kill or capture them. They are in Pakistan or the region, said one official, who also said that the Pakistani government was being quite helpful in working to identify them.

That is a significant change from last year. The attitude of Pakistani leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, appeared to change after he survived two assassination attempts that are now believed to have been aided by al-Qaida sympathizers.

Meanwhile yesterday, federal authorities increased security at New York helicopter launching pads amid new warnings that al-Qaida may try to use private choppers as flying bombs.

The security directive, issued late yesterday, ordered city heliports to bring in Transportation Security Administration screeners - or at least screeners approved by the agency - to check passengers and baggage, officials said.

Federal officials also are forcing private heliports to hand over employee data by last night so that detailed Homeland Security background checks can be carried out on each worker. In addition, the heliports must designate 24-hour liaisons to deal directly with federal officials.

The directive came days after the FBI sent bulletins to 18,000 police and government officials, warning that terrorists could pack helicopters and limos with explosives to create powerful, mobile bombs.

Along with the bomb threats, the FBI has told police that Osama bin Laden's operatives may use choppers to spread chemical or biological agents in buildings' ventilation systems.

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