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The New Al-Qaeda Central

A soldier stands guard in North Waziristan, one of the Pakistani tribal areas near Afghanistan where al-Qaeda's core leadership is believed to have regrouped.
A soldier stands guard in North Waziristan, one of the Pakistani tribal areas near Afghanistan where al-Qaeda's core leadership is believed to have regrouped. (By John Moore -- Getty Images)

Many U.S., Pakistani and European intelligence officials now agree that al-Qaeda's ability to launch operations around the globe didn't diminish after the invasion of Afghanistan as much as previously thought. Further investigation has shown, for example, that al-Qaeda's leadership, with bin Laden's direct blessing, made the decision to activate sleeper cells in Saudi Arabia in 2003, prompting a wave of car bombings and assassination attempts that the Saudi government has only recently brought under control.

From hideouts in Pakistan, according to court testimony and interviews, bin Laden's deputies ordered attacks on a Tunisian synagogue in 2002, a British consulate and bank in Istanbul in 2003, and the London transit system in 2005.

U.S intelligence officials also blame the al-Qaeda brain trust for orchestrating dozens of other failed plots, including a plan to blow up transatlantic flights from Britain in August 2006.

"All this business about them being isolated or cut off is whistling past the graveyard," said Michael Scheuer, a former CIA analyst who led the agency's unit assigned to track bin Laden. "We're looking at an organization that is extraordinarily adept at succession planning. They were built to survive, like the Afghans were against the Russians."

A Failed Strike

After nightfall on Jan. 13, 2006, an unmanned Predator aircraft guided by the CIA fired missiles at two houses in the northwestern Pakistani village of Damadola, a few miles from the Afghan border.

The target was a dinner celebrating the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. CIA officials had received intelligence that Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's deputy leader, had been invited to attend.

The missiles destroyed the houses and killed more than a dozen people. Zawahiri was not among them, but Pakistani officials soon said the fatalities included several other high-ranking al-Qaeda leaders.

Musharraf identified one of the dead as Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar, an Egyptian who had overseen al-Qaeda's research into chemical weapons and carried a $5 million U.S. government bounty on his head.

Musharraf and other Pakistani officials said those buried in the rubble also included Abu Obaidah al-Masri, the Egyptian chief of the al-Qaeda military wing that plots attacks in the West; Khalid Habib, a field commander for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan; and Zawahiri's son-in-law, Abdul Rahman al-Maghribi.

U.S. and Pakistani officials now say that none of those al-Qaeda leaders perished in the strike and that only local villagers were killed. The $5 million reward for Umar's capture remains on offer. Masri has continued to rise in the al-Qaeda structure, U.S. officials say, and six months after his supposed death was helping in the failed effort to put bombs aboard airliners flying from Britain.

Mahmood Shah, who at the time of the strike was Pakistan's security chief for the region, said intelligence for the Predator mission stemmed in part from the interrogation of another al-Qaeda leader, Abu Faraj al-Libi, who had been captured eight months earlier in the city of Mardan, also in Pakistan's northwest.

At the time, Shah said, U.S. and Pakistani officials thought merely that the timing of the strike was slightly off and that they had barely missed Zawahiri. Now, he said, he thinks Zawahiri and the others were never there. "I just think the information was not correct," he said.

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