First Published: 2011-12-15

 

US working on next blow to Al-Qaeda: Zawahiri ranks high in CIA drone hit-list

 

US experts say elimination of co-founder of Islamist organization will be devastating blow to Al-Qaeda's central command.

 

Middle East Online

By Michel Moutot – WASHINGTON

Dead man walking

Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri is a man with a price on his head, and whether he is on the move or has gone to ground, probably in Pakistan, his days are likely numbered, US experts say.

After the killing of Osama bin Laden in May in a secret raid deep in Pakistan by US elite commandos, Zawahiri took over at the head of the organization behind the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Elimination of the co-founder of the Islamic militant organization would be a devastating blow to Al-Qaeda's central command, and Zawahiri is being relentlessly pursued by the United States, say experts.

"A missile could strike him anywhere, day or night, at any time," said psychiatrist Marc Sageman, a former CIA agent in Pakistan and author of "Leaderless Jihad."

"If he waits too long in the same place he runs the risk of being spotted. But if he moves it's worse, he becomes even more vulnerable. It's an untenable position."

It was by slowly piecing together the trail of his only authorized contact that bin Laden was pinpointed and then killed during the US helicopter-borne raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

That precedent should haunt Zawahiri's days and nights, said Thomas Hegghammer, a terrorism specialist at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies.

"Bin Laden was very cautious but he had to maintain a certain amount of contact with the organization. And it got him killed," Hegghammer said during a conference in Washington on Al-Qaeda after bin Laden.

"I think al-Zawahiri is doing the same, with even a lower profile, being more careful of who he is talking to," he said.

Yet speaking to contacts is vital if he wants to retain some influence. "And every time he is doing it, he is taking a life-threatening risk. He has a choice: fading away or risking his life," Hegghammer added.

"He knows the CIA is working hard on him. He is on borrowed time. They will take him out. Tomorrow, in two months or in two years. But they will get him, too," he said.

Unquestionably, the most effective weapon in the US war against Al-Qaeda has been the CIA's secret -- and thus never officially acknowledged -- drone campaign targeting key jihadists in Pakistan.

But in a worrying setback for the drone program, US relations with Islamabad have plummeted since the Bin Laden raid, most recently over the killing of 24 Pakistani troops in a US air strike near the Afghan border.

Under Pakistani orders, the United States over the weekend vacated Pakistan's Shamsi air base where the CIA's drones were reportedly based.

Experts say the loss of the Shamsi base is not insurmountable, as drones can be flown from Afghanistan.

But the drone strikes, once a daily occurrence, appear to have been on hold since mid-November, and it is unclear when they will resume, said Andrew Liebovitch, an expert at the New America Foundation.

"US and Pakistani officials have said that Shamsi was being used mostly for maintenance and support operations, and that operations were shifted away from Shamsi following the May raid that killed Osama bin Laden," he said.

"What poses more of a threat to drone operations is the possibility that Pakistani forces will shoot down drones operating over Pakistani territory," Liebovitch added.

But drones are still the handiest US weapon to deploy against Zawahiri, should he be located, and Douglas Lute, Obama's principal advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan, insists US strategy will not change.

"We need to go for the KO (knock-out) punch. I would not adjust today programs that are designed for the KO punch. I'm not going to shift any gear in the next six months when we have the chance of a lifetime," Lute said.

According to Brian Fishman, an expert at the New America Foundation and the Combating Terrorism Center at US military academy West Point: "Al-Zawahiri is going to get killed someday. I don't know when. I didn't expect bin Laden to last as long as he did."

"If you are al-Zawahiri you know what is going on. You spend all your time and energy surviving. Survive to speak on the Internet another day," he said. "You don't know who you can trust, you watch over your shoulder, see traitors everywhere."

The US hot pursuit has the Al-Qaeda chief "on the run," Fishman added.

"He only can speak on camera, for broadcast on jihadi websites. He can't take part in any large plot, it would kill him," he said.

 

Horse-trading begins as Tunisia awaits formation of new government

Israel closes al-Aqsa mosque to worshipers in rare move

UK court says Libyan Abdul-Hakim Belhaj can sue over rendition

Syria accuses Turkey of ‘flagrant violation of sovereignty’

Global campaign to end female genital mutilation kicks off

US to examine troops exposed to chemicals in Iraq

African Union hits back at Somalia rape claims

New scare in Turkey as ‘suspect packages’ found

‘Insults against Netanyahu’ cause embarrassment to US

Kuwait online activist gets four years in jail for insulting judges

Heavy fighting in South Sudan sparks fears of humanitarian catastrophe

Sweden officially recognises State of Palestine

Egypt jails retired general for damaging national security

Gaza civil servants receive delayed salaries

After US criticism, Israel vows no concessions to Palestinians

Libya internationally recognised PM opens doors of dialogue with rivals

Huthi rebels seize stronghold of Muslim Brotherhood in central Yemen

Will Nidaa Tounes shun Islamists in Tunisia government formation?

Egypt starts work on buffer zone along border with Gaza

Turkey Sultan unveils new palace: Another break with symbols of secular state

Heavy toll as ‘Islamic State’ fights for control of Syria oil field

Iran President suffers fresh setback with rejection of Science Minister

Nuclear deal or no deal: ‘Red lines’ lay bare internal divisions in Iran

Heavy security in Mogadishu as UN chief meets Somalia president

Fighters from Free Syrian Army leave Turkey to join Kobane battle

Israel denies banning Palestinians sharing buses

Kurd fighters leave northern Iraq base for Syria deployment

Jordan requests UN emergency meeting over Israel settler expansion

Jerusalem Mayor visits Al-Aqsa mosque prompting anger

Tunisia reinforces commitment to democracy with ‘transparent’ elections

Turkey ‘decides’ for Kobane future: No Kurds, no Assad... Only Free Syrian Army!

Bahrain suspends Al-Wefaq weeks before parliamentary elections

Huge game changer in Tunisia: ‘In-credible’ failure of Islamist Ennahda Party

Libya PM in Khartoum for talks with Bashir

PKK hijack truck seizing explosive substance

Saudi lawyers get jail time for offensive tweets

Ennahda concedes defeat in Tunisia parliamentary elections

Syria rebels launch assault on regime-held city of Idlib

Iraq peshmerga wait for Turkey stance to depart for Syria

Sisi enacts military trials decree to cover ‘existential threat’

US calls for online war against ‘Islamic State’

Donors pledge $8 billion for Horn of Africa

Acid attacks in Iran: Deputy of Judiciary Chief to lead investigation

Lebanon army enters Islamist stronghold in Tripoli

Israel approves plans for 1,000 settler homes in East Jerusalem