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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)

Among them is Abu Laith al-Libi, the nom de guerre of a longtime jihadist who fought Soviet troops in Afghanistan, spent two years in prison in Saudi Arabia for covert activities there and organized a failed plot to overthrow Libyan ruler Moammar Gaddafi in the mid-1990s.

He began to work closely with bin Laden in 1999 and impressed al-Qaeda's command by leading the retreat from Kabul in 2001 after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, said Noman Benotman, a former member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

"The Saudis and others said, 'Who the hell is this guy?' They were impressed," Benotman said in an interview in London. "He can create operations. He can lead on the front lines. He knows when to attack, when to withdraw."

Abu Laith al-Libi has run training camps in Afghanistan in recent years for al-Qaeda and orchestrated a suicide attack on the U.S. air base in Bagram, killing 23 people, during a visit by Vice President Cheney in February, according to U.S. military officials.

Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, a Libyan believed to be in his late 30s, has meanwhile acted as a liaison between al-Qaeda's leadership in Pakistan and al-Qaeda in Iraq, a predominantly Sunni insurgent movement that is believed responsible for some of the deadliest bomb attacks on Shiite civilians in Iraq and is one of the U.S. military's fiercest foes. The group professes loyalty to bin Laden; intelligence analysts are divided as to whether he exercises real control over it.

Rahman has also operated as a bin Laden emissary to militant groups in North Africa that joined forces in January to form al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Words From 'the Clouds'

Much remains unknown about the internal workings of al-Qaeda Central. As with the old Soviet leadership in the Kremlin, U.S. analysts scrutinize public statements issued by the network for clues on who wields influence.

One figure attracting interest is a Libyan known as Abu Yahya al-Libi, who gained notoriety after he and three other al-Qaeda prisoners escaped from a high-security U.S. military prison in Bagram in July 2005.

Since then, he has appeared on more than a dozen videos produced by al-Qaeda's media arm. His speeches and treatises are so numerous that some analysts speculate he is being groomed to join bin Laden's inner circle. "Abu Yahya al-Libi is now the most visible face of al-Qaeda, surpassing al-Zawahiri, and in fact all of the jihadists," said Ben Venzke, chief executive of IntelCenter, a private terrorism research group that does work for the U.S. government.

In his videos, Abu Yahya al-Libi dresses the part of a gun-toting holy warrior but has made his reputation as a religious hard-liner. He frequently criticizes other Muslims as heretics; favorite targets include Shiites, Hamas and the Saudi royal family.

"He's young, but he's very smart," Benotman said. "For his career, the sky's the limit."

Since 2000, al-Qaeda has run its own media production company, al-Sahab, which means "the clouds" in Arabic, an allusion to the misty mountain peaks of Afghanistan.

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