The report that Osama bin Laden has been turned into a mere figurehead, while his former deputy Ayman al Zawahiri now controls Al-Qaeda, published in a leading British newspaper on Sunday, has not surprised counter-terrorism experts.
“We have known that increasingly, specially in the last six months, al Zawahiri has been running the day to day affairs of the Al-Qaeda network,” said Paul Beaver, who has tracked the organisation closely. “It is part of the succession process. Bin Laden is old and sick and is handing over charge.”
It was reported, based on analyses by intelligence officials that bin Laden “has not chaired a meeting of Al-Qaeda’s ruling council in more than two years”. But al Zawahiri had rebuilt the scattered organisation into an outfit capable of launching complex terror attacks across Europe and the United States.
“Bin Laden is the brand name, but al Zawahiri is the grand strategist,” said Bruce Hoffman, a member of the US Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Centre. “He has taken control of Al-Qaeda. Despite the new video released on September 11, where Bin Laden appears in person, the fact is that Bin Laden has ceased to be a major force in decision-making in Al-Qaeda.”
Intelligence agencies have also been forced to radically revise their view, widely held after the Taliban, which had shelted Al-Qaeda, lost control of Afghanistan, that the outfit had been reduced to little more than a cheerleader for Islamic extremists. The first real shock came with the discovery of the sensational August 2006 plot to blow up 10 aircraft en route from Heathrow to the United States. “That event sent shock waves through the intelligence agencies,” said Hoffman. “It was incontrovertible evidence that Al-Qaeda had regrouped, and that it was prepared to go after hard targets.”
British and American intelligence agencies now believe that a network of terrorist cells, funded, controlled and supported by al-Qaeda’s central command, is in place again, based in the tribal areas of Waziristan in Pakistan.
Al-Zawahiri’s task of rebuilding Al-Qaeda has been made easier by the fact that not a single prominent Al-Qaeda leader has been captured since March 2006. “Americans have been searching for them without much success.
They know a large number of senior ISI Generals are in league with bin Laden, and protect him,” said a source within the Pakistani political establishment.
“So the Al-Qaeda being active and in full strength should not surprise anyone.”
The political instability in Pakistan has also led a slackening of its war on terror, allowing Al-Qaeda to rebuild. “The return of Benazir Bhutto will not be liked by bin Laden. He hates women in public life. It was alleged that he had financed the no-confidence motion against her in 1989,” said Wajid Shamshul Hasan, former Pakistan high commission to Britain.