Qaeda Is Seen as Restoring Leadership
By MARK MAZZETTI
Published: April 2, 2007
WASHINGTON, April 1 — As Al Qaeda rebuilds in
Pakistan’s tribal areas, a new generation of leaders
has emerged under Osama bin Laden to cement 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 that
built Al Qaeda before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks,
leading to surprise and dismay within United States
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 Qaeda 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
Intelligence officials also have learned new
information about Al Qaeda’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.
The investigation into the airline plot has led
officials to conclude that an Egyptian paramilitary
commander called Abu Ubaidah al-Masri was the Qaeda
operative in Pakistan orchestrating the attack,
Mr. 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 the
Kunar Province of Afghanistan, but he emerged as one
of Al Qaeda’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
Mr. Masri and a handful of other Qaeda 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
Although the core leadership was weakened in the
counterterrorism campaign begun after the Sept. 11
attacks, intelligence officials now believe it was
not as crippling as once thought.
That reassessment has brought new urgency to joint
Pakistani and American intelligence operations in
Pakistan and strengthened officials’ belief that
dismantling Al Qaeda’s infrastructure there could
disrupt nascent large-scale terrorist plots that may
already be under way.
In February, the deputy C.I.A. director, Stephen R.
Kappes, accompanied Vice President Dick Cheney to
Islamabad to present Gen. Pervez Musharraf,
Pakistan’s president, with intelligence on Al
Qaeda’s growing abilities and to develop a strategy
to strike at training camps.
Officials from several American intelligence
agencies interviewed for this article agreed to
speak only on condition of anonymity because the
Qaeda assessments are classified.
Many American officials have said in recent years
that the roles of Mr. bin Laden and his lieutenants
in Pakistan’s remote mountains have diminished with
the growing prominence of the organization’s branch
in Iraq, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, and with the
emergence of regional terrorism networks and
so-called home-grown cells.
That view, in part, led the C.I.A. in late 2005 to
disband Alec Station, the unit that for a decade was
devoted to hunting Mr. bin Laden and his closest
advisers, and to reassign analysts within the
agency’s Counterterrorist Center to focus on Al
Qaeda’s expanding reach.
Officials say they believe that, in contrast with
the somewhat hierarchical structure of Al Qaeda in
Afghanistan before Sept. 11, the group’s leadership
is now more diffuse, with several planning hubs
working autonomously and not reliant on constant
contact with Mr. bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri, his
Much is still not known about the backgrounds of the
new Qaeda leaders; some have adopted noms de guerre.
Officials and outside analysts said they tend to be
in their mid-30s and have years of battlefield
experience fighting in places like Afghanistan and
Chechnya. They are more diverse than the earlier
group of leaders, which was made up largely of
battle-hardened Egyptian operatives. American
officials said the new cadre includes several
Pakistani and North African operatives.
Experts say they still see Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia
as largely independent of Al Qaeda’s hub in Pakistan
but that they believe the fighting in Iraq will
produce future Qaeda leaders.
“The jihadis returning from Iraq are far more
capable than the mujahedeen who fought the Soviets
ever were,” said Robert Richer, who was associate
director of operations in 2004 and 2005 for the
C.I.A. “They have been fighting the best military in
the world, with the best technology and tactics.”
Officials said other operatives believed to be
plotting internationally are Khalid Habib, a
Moroccan, and Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi. Mr. Iraqi, a Kurd
who served in Saddam Hussein’s army, moved to
Afghanistan to fight Soviet occupiers. Officials
believe that he was dispatched to Iraq by Mr. bin
Laden to deal with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose
terrorist group allied with Mr. bin Laden. It took
the name Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia before Mr. Zarqawi
was killed in an American bombing in June of last
year. American officials say they believe that Mr.
Iraqi is now back operating inside of Pakistan.
American officials say they still know little about
how operatives communicate with Mr. bin Laden and
“There has to be some kind of communication up the
line, we just don’t see it,” one senior intelligence
American counterterrorism officials said they did
not believe that any one figure had taken over the
role once held by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the
operations chief who was arrested in Pakistan in
2003 and is being held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
During a recent legal hearing, Mr. Mohammed claimed
responsibility for planning dozens of attacks over
more than a decade.
One reason that Mr. Mohammed proved so valuable to
Al Qaeda was his experience as a college student in
the United States, which allowed him to train
several Sept. 11 hijackers to assimilate into
American officials said the seeming elevation of a
California-born operative named Adam Gadahn to a
more prominent role might be an effort to replicate
Mr. Mohammed’s experience.
Mr. Gadahn has appeared on several Qaeda videos in
recent years. The United States offers a $1 million
reward for information leading to his capture. But
American officials are divided about how important a
role he plays, or whether top Qaeda leaders are
merely using him for propaganda.
Officials are also divided and somewhat puzzled
about Iran’s role in pursuing Qaeda figures.
Intelligence officials say they believe that the
Iranian government has in some cases been quite
active in the hunt and has put under house arrest a
number of top operatives who fled from Afghanistan
after the Sept. 11 attacks, including the Egyptian
operations chief Saif al-Adel and Saad bin Laden,
one of the Qaeda leader’s sons.
But officials say they believe that several other
important Qaeda figures may be operating in Iran,
including an Egyptian known as Abu Jihad al-Masri
and a Libyan explosives expert named Atiyah Abd al-Rahman,
who is thought to travel between Iran and Pakistan’s
Top American officials said that, despite the damage
to the structure of Al Qaeda after the Sept. 11
attacks, concern is still high that the group is
determined to attack globally.
“We have been very concerned that over time the
leaders of Al Qaeda would try to rebuild a chain of
command and an organizational structure,” said
Robert S. Mueller III, director of the F.B.I, in a
statement provided for this article.
Mr. Mueller said Al Qaeda was clearly committed to
carrying out “major complex operations.” Some
experts who have studied the group since its
inception said American officials had in the past
too readily assumed that Al Qaeda’s decision to wait
long periods of time between attacks was a sign of
“To say that Al Qaeda was out of business simply
because they have not attacked in the U.S. is
whistling past the graveyard,” said Michael Scheuer,
a former head of the bin Laden tracking unit at the
C.I.A. “Al Qaeda is still humming along, and with a
new generation of leaders.”
Car Bomb Kills 3 Children
KABUL, Afghanistan, April 1 — A suicide car bomb hit
an Afghan Army convoy in the eastern province of
Laghman on Sunday, killing at least three children
playing nearby and a mullah from a local mosque,
Afghan officials said. Thirteen people were wounded,
including eight soldiers, the Defense Ministry said.
The attack occurred in a bazaar in Mehtarlam, the
provincial capital. The convoy was passing the
market, carrying food for the army.