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.

 

Gaza civilian toll spiralling to above 800

Hezbollah chief speaks out on Gaza

Sadly no survivors on Air Algerie flight crash

Two rival Islamic states in Syria power struggle

Ordeal of ‘apostasy’ woman ends with departure from Sudan

Crete protest against Syria chemicals destruction in Mediterranean

74 killed in IS assault on Syria regime territory

Iran confirms arrest of Washington Post correspondent

Somali 'Shebab commanders' killed in AU offensive

Paris: survivors of Air Algerie jet crash 'unlikely'

Jordan shots down drone near Syria border

UN urges Europe to tackle Mediterranean migrant crisis

From Israel with ‘virus’: Death threat letter reaches Palestinian mission in France

Another bloody day as Israel targets civilians in UN-run school

‘Islamic State’ launches multiple attacks on Syria army

Attack on Egypt army post bears fingerprints of foreign intelligence

Harassment of Christians escalates in Islamist-run Sudan

Air Algerie plane goes missing over Mali

Algeria plane with many French nationals on board vanishes over Mali

Iraqi protesters denounce treatment of minority Christians

Iraq elects Kurdish politician as federal president

Russia begins supplying military equipment to Iraq

Air Algerie plane contact lost over west Africa

South Sudan warring sides to resume peace talks

Baghdad closer to breaking political limbo

Spectacular attack on Iraq prisoner convoy

Gaza death toll passes 700 mark

Mladenov pleads for UN help to end IS 'atrocities' in Iraq

Hamas hails suspension of Israel flights as 'great victory'

Lebanon army records first case of desertion to join Syria Nusra Front

Iraq gunmen kill female former candidate for parliament

Kerry cites ‘some steps forward’ in Gaza truce efforts

Turkey hunts for nine intelligence officers in wire-tapping probe

Suspension of hostilities in Gaza to allow medical assistance

Assassination of famed Somali musician and lawmaker

Sisi defends Egypt in trying to broker Gaza truce

Syria welcomes nomination of Staffan de Mistura as new UN envoy

Iraq lawmakers stall presidential election as violence yields grim crop of bodies

Yemen president calls for unity

Etihad helps Jet Airways return to profit

Is Tunisia returning to old regime censorship?

Qatar emir in unannounced visit to Saudi

HRW: Iraq air strikes wreaking awful toll on civilians

Kuwait revokes pro-opposition TV, newspaper licences

Twin suicide bombing shakes Libya's Benghazi