New al-Qaida leaders emerge

U.S. intelligence officials gain clearer view of hierarchy in training camps in Pakistan

April 02, 2007|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- As al-Qaida rebuilds in Pakistan's tribal areas, a new generation of leaders has emerged under Osama bin Laden to consolidate control over the network's operations, according to American intelligence and counterterrorism officials.

The new leaders rose from within the organization after the death or capture of the operatives who built al-Qaida before the Sept. 11 attacks, leading to surprise and dismay within American intelligence agencies about the group's ability to rebound from an American-led offensive.

It has been known that American officials were focusing on a band of al-Qaida training camps in Pakistan's remote mountains, but a clearer picture is emerging about those who are running the camps and thought to be involved in plotting attacks.

American, European and Pakistani authorities have for months been piecing together a picture of the new leadership, based in part on evidence-gathering during terrorism investigations in the past two years. Particularly important have been interrogations of suspects and material evidence connected to a plot British and American investigators said they averted last summer to destroy multiple commercial airliners after takeoff from London.

Intelligence officials also have learned new information about al-Qaida's structure through intercepted communications between operatives in Pakistan's tribal areas, although officials said the group has a complex network of human couriers to evade electronic eavesdropping.

And the investigation into the airline plot has led officials to conclude that an Egyptian paramilitary commander called Abu Ubaidah al-Masri was the al-Qaida operative in Pakistan orchestrating the attack, officials said.

Al-Masri, a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan, is believed to travel frequently over the rugged border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. He was long thought to be in charge of militia operations in Kunar province, Afghanistan, but he emerged as one of al-Qaida's senior operatives after the death of Abu Hamza Rabia, another Egyptian who was killed by a missile strike in Pakistan in 2005.

The evidence officials said was accumulating about al-Masri and a handful of other al-Qaida figures has led to a reassessment within the American intelligence community about the strength of the group's core in Pakistan's tribal areas, and its role in some of the most significant terrorism plots of the past two years, including the airline plot and the suicide attacks in London in July 2005 that killed 56.

Although the core leadership was weakened in the counterterrorism campaign begun after the Sept. 11 attacks, intelligence officials now believe it was not as crippled as they once thought.

The reassessment has brought new urgency to joint Pakistani-American intelligence operations in Pakistan and strengthened officials' belief that dismantling al-Qaida's infrastructure there could disrupt nascent large-scale plots that may be under way.

In February, the deputy CIA director, Stephen R. Kappes, accompanied Vice President Dick Cheney to Islamabad to present Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, with intelligence on al-Qaida's growing abilities and to develop a strategy to strike at training camps.

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