- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2002

Upper-tier al Qaeda leaders are spending more time hiding and running than planning new terror attacks, senior U.S. officials say.
But if Osama bin Laden's small circle of confidants does survive Washington's war on terror, its next operations chief is likely to be 30-year-old Palestinian Abu Zubaydah.
Zubaydah, who is believed to have eluded the four-month allied bombing of Afghanistan and is hiding in the region, was bin Laden's chief recruiter and screener of terror recruits. He helped plan two of al Qaeda's most vicious attacks on Americans the bombing of two U.S. embassies in eastern Africa and the September 11 strikes.
His name does not surface in the FBI's Most Wanted List, but the White House in September listed him among the terrorists for whom it wants international banks to cut off funds. Jordan has sentenced him to death in absentia for plotting to bomb a tourist site last year.
Officials say the Riyadh-born Zubaydah is the most likely candidate to succeed bin Laden's former operations chief, Mohammed Atef, who was killed in November when a U.S. Navy jet and a CIA-operated drone struck a house south of Kabul.
The New York Times yesterday said Zubaydah already has emerged as Atef's successor and is reorganizing the global al Qaeda terror network for new attacks on the United States.
Two U.S. officials, who asked not to be named, said they have not seen enough intelligence reports to conclude that Zubaydah has ascended to al Qaeda's No. 3 spot.
"He was always one of the top aides to bin Laden and remains such," said one official with access to intelligence reports. "The notion that he's taken over running the organization, I don't think we have anything to substantiate that. But he remains a top al Qaeda figure and a dangerous one."
He added, "We have reports of his comings and goings. We don't have reports of him planning a particular event."
Asked by the Associated Press yesterday whether Zubaydah has been promoted, White House National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said, "The fact is, I don't think we know how al Qaeda has rearranged itself as it has lost various people. … Cogs are being pulled out of this organization every day. They're on the run."
Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism official, said that if Zubaydah has been promoted, it shows the group's operational flexibility in about 60 countries.
"He's basically been the point of contact for all of the al Qaeda networks for a long time," said Mr. Cannistraro, now a security consultant. "He now appears to be reorganizing and renewing al Qaeda cells around the world and they don't know where he is."
After the 1998 embassy bombings, "we got on to him in Pakistan and he dashed off to Afghanistan," Mr. Cannistraro said. "He travels frequently, is adept at disguises. He's a pretty slippery guy who is now running the worldwide al Qaeda network."
Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian convicted of plotting a terrorist attack in Los Angeles to coincide with the millennium celebration, has given perhaps the most detailed firsthand knowledge of Zubaydah's role.
"He receives young men from all countries," Ressam said in court testimony. "He accepts you or rejects you."
The death of Atef notwithstanding, bin Laden's inner circle of advisers and planners remains largely intact.
Bin Laden has remained on the run since air strikes began Oct. 7, moving from compounds around Kandahar in southern Afghanistan to the bunkers and caves of Tora Bora in northeastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border. He is believed to have escaped Tora Bora shortly before it fell to anti-Taliban fighters in mid-December, and may be hiding in eastern Afghanistan or with friendly tribes in Pakistan's no-man's land.
His top adviser, Egyptian surgeon Ayman al Zawahiri, and his spokesman, Abu Ghaith, also are believed to still be alive and traveling with bin Laden.
"They are spending most of their time hiding and running," the senior official said.
Zubaydah (also known as Zayn al Abidin Muhammad Husayn Aabu Zubaydah) is believed to rank just below this upper tier among a group of 10 to 20 managers, financial directors, security chiefs and terror-camp operators.
"Al Qaeda is like a pancake with a raisin on top," said a Defense Department official. "There are thousands of soliders, but few top officials."
In fact, the 13-year-old terror network is so compartmentalized that individual terror cells of six persons, or so, often do not know what other cells are planning. Bin Laden himself did not know all the operational details of his September 11 attacks on America.
*Bill Gertz contributed to this article.


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