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Al Qaeda's affiliates go their own way

world Updated: Aug 31, 2011 01:22 IST
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At some point in coming days, a shadowy group of al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan who make up the network's "General Command" is likely to announce a replacement for Atiyah abd al-Rahman, the Libyan chief of operations who was killed last week in a drone strike launched by the Central Intelligence Agency.

But as the 10th anniversary of the group's most successful strike approaches, the key question is: Does it matter?

In many ways, a successor to Rahman would have a familiar role in the terrorist group.

He would be in charge of coordinating attacks against the United States and Europe, delivering messages from the new leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, to the rank and file, and managing sometimes strained relations between al Qaeda's Pakistan-based leadership and the group's far-flung affiliates throughout the Middle East and Africa.

But even as al Qaeda's leadership continues to project an image of control, many terrorism experts and American intelligence officials say that the members of this circle of maybe a dozen operatives - many of whom served for years as Osama bin Laden's closest confidants - are at risk of being marginalised not only by the global jihad movement but by the Qaeda affiliates they helped spawn. With their ranks thinned by a relentless barrage of drone strikes, some experts believe, al Qaeda's operatives in Pakistan resemble a driver holding a steering wheel that is no longer attached to the car.

"With the death of guys like Atiyah, it's increasingly likely that the Al Qaeda affiliate groups are just going to start doing their own thing," said Brian Fishman, a terrorism analyst at the New America Foundation. "At some point, the guys in Pakistan might be reduced to issuing a lot of public statements and hoping for the best."

Now, al Qaeda will have to dig into its ranks to replace Rahman, which many experts said will not be easy.

American officials said that one candidate is Abu Yahya al-Libi, another Libyan operative who became more prominent after he escaped from the American military prison at Bagram in Afghanistan in 2005.

But some American officials said that the group is now largely independent of Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, and that there is even evidence that various affiliated groups across Northern Africa might increasingly be acting in league with one another.