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.

 

Iran nuclear talks enter their final day

After a month-long battle, Tikrit 'liberated'

Kuwait emir pledges $500 million at Syria donors conference

Arab coalition pounds Yemeni capital

Ancient Libyan treasures now in ISIS' sights

Armed group takes prosecutor hostage in Istanbul

Palestine must wait for its day in court

UN rights chief expresses alarm on Yemen situation

Suicide blast in Iraq on bus carrying Iranian pilgrims

Iraq forces ‘retake’ government HQ in Tikrit

Massive power cut causes chaos across Turkey

Assad does not see Russia, Iran interests in Syria

Confidence in Tunisia ability to rebound as museum reopens to public

Iran claims US drone killed two military advisers in Iraq

Court finds ex-Israel Premier Olmert guilty in corruption retrial

Deadly air strike hits camp for displaced people in northwest Yemen

Erdogan insists on visit to Iran despite war-of-words

UN chief in Iraq for talks with top officials

UN warns of horrifying Syria 'catastrophe'

Iran asks for explanation on Erdogan comments

One day to Iran nuclear talks deadline

Yemen ex-president's son sacked as ambassador to UAE

At time of war, cigar business launched in Syria

Yemen Huthi rebels bombed for fifth night

Saudi police officers wounded in Riyadh drive-by shooting

World leaders show solidarity with Tunisia in march against extremism

Guarded optimism as Iran nuclear talks close in on deal

Dialogue remains distant as Arabs vow to defeat Iran 'puppet' in Yemen

Egypt renews calls for creation of joint military force at Arab summit

Saudi ambassador to return to Sweden after diplomatic spat

Libya forces ‘withdraw’ from frontline bases near oil ports

Qaeda seizes 'majority' of Syria northwestern city of Idlib

Torturous Iran talks move into top gear in battle of wills

UN Security Council keeps Libya arms embargo in place

Saudi-led airstrikes target arms depots in Yemen capital

Death toll from hotel attack rises as fighting continues in Somalia

Oil prices fall after Yemen-inspired gains

Turkish parliament passes security bill after long debate

Turkey army chief of staff visits historic tomb inside Syria

Saudi-led coalition keeps up raids against Yemen rebels

Assad says open to dialogue with US

US backs Saudi-led intervention in Yemen

Heavy Saudi raids force Sanaa residents to flee

Israeli Arab MP walks for Bedouins

Gulf stocks regain ground after early losses over Yemen