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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)

Until two years ago, al-Sahab was dependent on broadcasters such as the al-Jazeera satellite television network to air its videos and could distribute only short clips on the Internet. But then it achieved a spectacular breakthrough. Taking advantage of technological advances and bandwidth expansion, it began posting videos directly on the Internet, relying on an anonymous global network of webmasters to shield their electronic tracks.

In 2005, al-Sahab released 16 videos. This year, it has produced four times that number. Quality has improved markedly, with most videos now including subtitles in several languages and sometimes 3-D animation.

"If you want to stop al-Qaeda on the communications front, you should concentrate on their IT manager instead of Osama," said Muhammad Amir Rana, director of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, a research group in Lahore, Pakistan, that studies militant groups.

Al-Sahab can now record and release videos with astonishing speed. When Pakistani forces stormed Islamabad's Red Mosque on July 10, resulting in more than 80 deaths, Zawahiri responded the next day with an audiotaped speech, calling the raid "an act of criminal aggression."

Al-Sahab mixes low-tech and high-tech tricks to prevent spy agencies from blocking its releases or tracing videos back to their source, said Evan F. Kohlmann, a New York-based counterterrorism analyst.

The videos are routed through a chain of couriers who hand-deliver them to computer gurus, probably in Pakistan, he said.

They, in turn, electronically send the files to others around the world who upload them to free or hijacked Web sites.

"The process of tracing this stuff back is not that easy," Kohlmann said. "They've created breaks in the distribution chain, both electronic breaks and human breaks."

A Protective Network

In July, U.S. intelligence agencies published a report concluding that al-Qaeda Central had regrouped in remote northwestern Pakistan, aided by a 2005 decision by the Pakistani government to declare a truce with Taliban forces and withdraw troops from the tribal area of Waziristan.

Latif Afridi, a Pashtun tribal elder, said that many places along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan have been effectively taken over by foreign militants, mostly Uzbeks, Tajiks, Chechens and Arabs. Although they are not all associated with al-Qaeda, bin Laden's network has been able to rely on them for protection, he said.

"We have al-Qaeda, we have Taliban, we have foreigners, and we have Pakistani-trained militant groups that have been banned," Afridi said in an interview in Peshawar. "They're running the show."

Pakistani and U.S. intelligence officials said the number of militant training camps has surged along the border. But unlike al-Qaeda's fixed camps in Afghanistan before 2001, they consist of small groups that gather for a few days for firearms or bombmaking practice before disbanding, making them hard to detect.

The truce between the Taliban and the Pakistani military collapsed in North Waziristan in July and in South Waziristan a month later. Since then, Pakistani forces have reentered the tribal areas and resumed clashes with the Taliban and other militants.

But Asad Durrani, a retired chief of Pakistan's powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence bureau, said it would take more than military intervention to capture al-Qaeda leaders.

Durrani said U.S. bombing campaigns along the Afghan-Pakistani border had thoroughly alienated civilians who otherwise might help root out al-Qaeda commanders. "The first instinct you Americans have is military power -- dropping bombs," he said. "This was absolutely 100 percent guaranteed not to succeed, and it's continued that way for the past six years."

He said it would take a concentrated, methodical approach to find bin Laden and his deputies, relying on human intelligence and simple detective work.

"If they are there, sit back, be patient," Durrani advised. "The good hunter hunts on foot."

Special correspondent Munir Ladaa in Berlin and researchers Alice Crites and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.

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