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Al Qaeda down and out a year after Osama's death

A year after al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden was killed in a US Navy SEAL attack, the core of his network lies in shambles. His affiliates, however, still remain a threat to the world.

delhi Updated: Apr 30, 2012 10:59 IST

A year after al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden was killed in a US Navy SEAL attack, the core of his network lies in shambles. His affiliates, however, still remain a threat to the world.

US security officials, who spoke to AFP reporters on the condition of anonymity, said, ''The organisation that brought us (United States) 9/11 is essentially gone, but the movement... the ideology of the global jihad, bin Laden’s philosophy — that survives in a variety of places outside Pakistan.''

Bin Laden's chosen successor, Egyptian doctor Ayman Al Zawahiri, according to US officials, still aspires to attack the United States, but with US drone strikes killing, among others, Ilyas Kashmiri, the man entrusted with the task of killing US President Barack Obama and Atiyah Abdul Rahman, the operative who served as the link between bin Laden and the Qaeda network, Zawahiri's Pakistan-based group, now reduced to a few dozen militants, lies low fearing more such attacks or raids.

Deputy director of US national intelligence, Robert Cardillo, believes, an attack with weapons of mass destruction — chemical, biological or nuclear by the al Qaeda, or its related groups is less likely in the coming year.

How US Navy SEALS attacked Osama's house

Another factor, according to experts, as quoted by AFP, is the fact that Zawahiri has not been able to unite the same loose global movement under his command.

"What gave substance to al Qaeda's global ambition was the person of bin Laden. He was a unique figure whom Zawahiri is incapable of replacing," Jean-Pierre Filiu, a French academic and author of a book on al Qaeda told news agency AFP.

He is “less compelling,” Robert Cardillo, deputy director of national intelligence, told reporters. The group’s followers “will not offer and have not offered [Zawahiri] the deference provided bin Laden.”

Zawahiri has not managed to harness multiple groups into a cohesive force focused on a single, catastrophic attack, say US anti-terror officials, thus, making it difficult for them to carry out an attack that would attract geopolitcal clout. The Qaeda is now believed to have shifted focus to inspiring its allied groups.

Al Qaeda's key affiliates in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and North Africa have pledged allegiance to Zawahiri but are unimpressed with his leadership, Cardillo said. Zawahiri has a reputation as an abrasive manager and a less than charismatic speaker.

That loss of a single, charismatic voice likely means "multiple voices will provide inspiration for the movement," leading to a bout of soul-searching as to what the splinter groups want to target and why, says Cardillo.

"There will be a vigorous debate about local versus global jihad within and among terror organisations," he said.

Senior US counterterrorist officials feel that while Yemen's al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, may not yet be able to carry out complex attacks inside the US, such groups are capable of hitting Western targets overseas and are building armies and expertise while plotting violence. Thus, making it the affiliate they are most worried about.

A file photo of slain al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and his second-in-command and now al Qaeda chief Ayman al Zawahri.

It is al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen that ''we're most worried about, the affiliate we spend the most time on. They're operating in the midst of essentially an insurgency, a multi-polar struggle for the control of Yemen. And that allows them the opportunity to recruit, to fundraise, to plot,'' say US counterterrorism officials.

Over the past year, AQAP has fused itself with a regional insurgency that has seized large portions of the country’s southern provinces as well as launched incessant attacks on government forces.

The Shebab Islamist group, in Somalia, has also pledged allegiance to al Qaeda's global jihad, and continues to resist pressure from a weak interim regime supported by African Union forces and periodic US strikes.

In North Africa, al Qaeda’s franchise has made millions of dollars through kidnappings and other criminal enterprises, US officials said, and is now using the money to stock up on weapons that have flowed out of Libya after dictator Moammar Gaddafi was overthrown.

A potentially positive sign is al Qaeda's failure to hijack the Arab Spring revolt in Egypt, Tunisia or Libya. On the negative side, the officials said, al Qaeda is working hard to co-opt rebels in Syria.

If the political wrangling in any of the post-revolt nations fails to produce stable, responsive governments, al Qaeda and its ilk may be able to seize the void, the officials said. A case in example being Yemen, where AQAP has taken full advantage of the local government's preoccupation fighting multiple political opponents.

Officials also noted that every time US counterterrorist forces strike, they must take care to avoid everything from civilian casualties to hitting the wrong target, lest the blowback produce more enemies.

"The key challenge will be balancing aggressive counterterrorism operations, with the risk of exacerbating the anti-Western global agenda" of al Qaeda and its affiliates, Cardillo said.

Protected in Pakistan?
In a detailed account contained in a police report dated January 19, given by bin Laden's 30-year-old wife, Amal Ahmad Abdul Fateh, she agreed to marry bin laden in 2000 because ''she had a desire of marrying a mujahid.''

She then came to Karachi and months later crossed into Afghanistan to join her husband and his two other wives at his base on a farm outside Kandahar.

Post the 9/11 attacks, which caused the Laden family to scatter, according to a report in the New York Times, Fateh returned to Karachi with her newborn daughter Safia and stayed there for about nine months during which she shifted between seven houses arranged by "some Pakistani family" and Laden's elder son Saad.

She then left Karachi in the second half of 2002 for Peshawar where she was reunited with her husband.

In 2003, they moved to Haripur, a small town close to Islamabad, where they stayed in a rented house for two years. Finally in mid-2005, they moved to Abbottabad, where Fateh gave birth to two more children in 2006 and 2008. They lived there till the US Navy SEAL attack in 2011, which she survived, but four others were killed.

The details of bin Laden's life as a fugitive, which were first published by the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, raise fresh questions over how bin Laden was able to remain undetected for so long in Pakistan after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks, despite being the subject of a massive international manhunt.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, issuing his first formal response to questions about how the world's most-wanted militant was able to live for so long in comfort near Islamabad, did little to dispel suspicions.

"Some in the US press have suggested that Pakistan lacked vitality in its pursuit of terrorism, or worse yet that we were disingenuous and actually protected the terrorists we claimed to be pursuing," Zardari wrote in an opinion piece in the Washington Post.

"Such baseless speculation may make exciting cable news, but it doesn't reflect fact."

Pakistan has faced enormous international scrutiny since bin Laden was killed, with questions over whether its military and intelligence agencies were too incompetent to catch him, or knew all along where he was hiding and even whether they had been complicit.

Reflecting US-Pakistani relations strained by years of mistrust, Islamabad was kept in the dark about the raid until after all US aircraft were out of Pakistani airspace.

But nearly a year later, Pakistan's intelligence service believes it deserves creditfor helping US intelligence agencies to locate bin Laden's hideout.

"The lead and the information actually came from us," an unnamed senior official with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) told The Post.

But US officials refuted their claim.

"This was an American operation. Pakistanis didn't provide any tips on bin Laden, but they provided certain information that aided the United States in developing the American intelligence picture on the compound," said a US official, who asked not to be identified.

Osama dead Obama gains?
While relations between the two countries may be at their worst, US President Barack Obama has shifted the May 1 killing from a national pride issue to a political weapon.

With elections to his second term in November this year, Obama's re-election campaign is portraying his risky decision to go after America's top enemy as a defining difference with his Republican presidential opponent, suggesting Mitt Romney might not have had the guts to order a mission that put lives and perhaps a presidency at stake.

"Does anybody doubt that had the mission failed, it would have written the beginning of the end of the president's first term?" Vice President Joe Biden says in laying out Obama's foreign policy campaign message.

"We know what (US) President Obama did. We can't say for certain what Governor Romney would have done.

The strategy underscores the fact that Obama who ordered the raid as commander in chief is now seeking a second term as president. The risk is the political blowback that can come if he is seen as crossing a line into politicizing national security.

"This is the same president who said, after bin Laden was dead, that we shouldn't 'spike the ball' after the touchdown," he said.

"And now Barack Obama is not only trying to score political points by invoking Osama bin Laden, he is doing a shameless end-zone dance to help himself get re-elected," said Obama's 2008 opponent, John McCain.

Life on the run
In January 2002, then-Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf had claimed that the terrorist leader had probably already died of kidney failure, and that he needed to travel with two dialysis machines.

But according to Amal al-Sadeh, a close aide of Osama, who was caught during the raid in Abbottabad, bin Laden wasn't on kidney dialysis - but he did need a herbal impotence drug.

"He was neither weak nor frail," 29-year-old said.

Medicines that were found in the compound reportedly included drugs to treat shingles, ulcers, nerve pain, high blood pressure, and Avena syrup, an extract of wild oats that is marketed as a natural Viagra.

The Sun in a report, says, Khairiah, Osama eldest widow, was said to be jealous about Amal, his youngest bride, getting to sleep with Osama all the time. Khairiah had accused Amal of sticking to Osama like a prostitute who wanted “sex throughout the day

A large number of pornographic videos were also seized from the Abbottabad hideout of the slain al Qaeda chief.

Officials from the CIA-led Inter-Agency Task Force, said it was not clear yet who used to watch the videos.


(With agency inputs)

First Published: Apr 29, 2012 14:26 IST