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Al-Qaeda faces an 'ideological split'

With Osama bin Laden keeping a low profile, the Al-Qaeda number two Ayman Al-Zawahiri has moved aggressively to take operational control of the group, media reports say.
PTI | By HT Correspondent, New York
UPDATED ON JUL 23, 2007 01:31 PM IST

With Osama bin Laden keeping a low profile, the Al-Qaeda number two Ayman Al-Zawahiri has moved aggressively to take operational control of the group which has provoked a potentially serious "ideological split" within the terror outfit, media reports said.

In a revelation, the Newsweek magazine claims in its upcoming issue that the recent suicide attacks in Pakistan following storming of Lal Masjid by the army to flush out militants were ordered by Zawahari.

After years in which Zawahiri seemed constantly on the run, his alleged orchestration of last week's attacks would be further evidence that Qaeda and Taliban forces are newly empowered and have consolidated control of a safe haven along the Pakistani border, it said.

The magazine, which interviewed Pakistani and Talibani officials recently, said the anti-Zawahiri faction in Al-Qaeda fears his actions may be jeopardising that safe haven.

"Within the terror group, questions are being whether Zawahiri is growing too powerful, and has become obsessed with toppling Musharraf," the magazine said quoting two jihadis it interviewed last week.

Both, the magazine says, have proved reliable in the past: they are Omar Farooqi, the nom de guerre for a veteran Taliban fighter and chief liaison officer between insurgent forces in Afghanistan's Ghazni province, and Hemat Khan, a Taliban operative with links to Al-Qaeda.

Zawahiri has also been appearing in a recent flurry of audio and videotapes. A new National Intelligence Estimate out of Washington last week also concludes that Al-Qaeda is resurgent in Pakistan and more centrally organized than it has been at any time since 9/11.

The duo were quoted as saying Zawahiri's personal jihad has angered Al-Qaeda's so-called Libyan faction, which intelligence officials believe may be led by Abu Yahya al-Libi, who made a daring escape from an American high-security lockup at Baghram air base in 2005.

The Libyan Islamists, along with Bin Laden and other senior Qaeda leaders, would love to see Musharraf gone, too, the magazine says but they fear that Zawahiri is inviting the Pakistani leader's wrath, prematurely opening up another battlefront before the jihadis have properly consolidated their position.

Pakistani intelligence officials, the report says, believe Zawahiri was behind two attempts to kill Musharraf that failed in December 2003. Since then, Zawahiri has been on an almost personal crusade to assassinate or overthrow the Pakistani leader.

In his latest video, which is among at least 10 audio and video spots he has released this year, and which was produced and put on a jihadist website in record time, Zawahiri condemned the Mosque raid and urged Pakistani Muslims to "revolt," or else "Musharraf will annihilate you."

The Egyptian-born Zawahiri, the reports says, is nominal leader of the Egyptian faction, the Jamaat al-Jihad, which he united with Al-Qaeda in the 1990s. It is larger and contains more senior people than the Libyan group. Both jihadis sources told Newsweek that there is now what Khan calls "a clear divide" between the two factions.

"The Libyans say he's too extremist," Farooqi is quoted as saying by the magazine.

"Libyans tell me that the Sheik [bin Laden] has not appointed a successor and that only the US government and the media talk of Zawahiri as being the deputy," Farooqi says.

A senior US official involved in counter-terrorism policy, Newsweek says, agrees that there are tensions between Al-Qaeda's Egyptian and Libyan factions, as well as between Saudi and Central Asian elements. "These guys are not immune to nationalist tendencies," he says.

Bin Laden himself has not personally intervened to end the internal feud, according to the sources. For security reasons he rarely has face-to-face meetings with his deputies.

"He doesn't want to get involved," says Khan. "He's already too busy with strategic planning and inspirational duties and with directing his own security." Instead, Bin Laden has tried to resolve the dispute by dividing duties between the two factions and appointing a pair of mediators, the sources said.

However, American and Pakistani officials were quoted as saying the infighting also hasn't prevented Zawahiri and his Qaeda brethren, along with Afghan Taliban and militant Pakistani tribal leaders, from establishing a complex command, control, training and recruitment base largely in Waziristan.

The governor of Afghanistan's Khowst province Arsala Jamal told Newsweek that Qaeda and Afghan and Pakistani militants have moved some of their top fighters and commanders from Waziristan into safe areas in Afghanistan in case Pakistani and US forces launch retaliatory raids.

US counterterrorism operatives, the magazine says, have been reluctant to cross into Waziristan for fear of violating Pakistani sovereignty and upsetting Musharraf. US and Pakistani officials, it says, hope that Zawahiri overreaches in his zeal to kill Musharraf, and they get an intelligence break on his whereabouts.

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