Manhunt for bin Laden and Top Aide, Zawahiri, Continues to Be Fruitless
Manhunt for bin Laden and Top Aide, Zawahiri, Continues to Be Fruitless
By Raymond Bonner with David Johnston
New York Times
Thursday 27 February 2003
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan For months American troops and covert operatives have combed the rugged outlands of eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan in search of Osama bin Laden and his principal deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The fruitless manhunt serves as a reminder of the Bush administration's inability to achieve one of the main goals of its antiterror effort, the capture of Al Qaeda's leaders. Mr. bin Laden and Mr. Zawahiri are not only at large, but apparently are the sources of recent taped exhortations urging followers to carry out more violence.
Pakistani officials are now saying Mr. Zawahiri fled Afghanistan in late 2001, only weeks after the Americans began bombing Qaeda and Taliban strongholds there, an assertion strongly rejected by American intelligence officials.
In separate interviews in the last week, two Pakistani officials said Mr. Zawahiri, an Egyptian-born surgeon regarded as the terror network's No. 2 leader, was smuggled across the porous border into Pakistan and escaped by boat across the Arabian Sea, possibly to the Middle East or North Africa.
The Pakistani officials said the information about Mr. Zawahiri's escape had come to them only in the last few weeks. They said their sources were diverse: paid informers as well as Qaeda suspects interrogated after being picked up in recent raids in Pakistan.
According to the informers and prisoners, Mr. Zawahiri was in the small southeastern Afghan city of Khost, a main Qaeda training center, in October 2001 when his wife and at least one of his children were killed in the American bombings, the Pakistani officials said.
The sources said he and three aides had been taken into the Pakistani province of Baluchistan and then down to the coast, where a boat had been waiting.
The officials also said their information had been shared with American authorities. The Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have agents in Pakistan searching for remnants of Al Qaeda while American troops look on the other side of the border.
American officials in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, declined to comment on the reports or discuss whether they know anything of Mr. Zawahiri's whereabouts.
In Washington, an American intelligence official said that although Mr. Zawahiri's location was unknown, Americans believed that he was still in hiding in the Afghan-Pakistani border region. The official emphasized that the United States had no evidence that Mr. Zawahiri had left the rugged tribal areas.
Another American official in Washington scoffed at the idea that Mr. Zawahiri had escaped from the region. The official asserted that it was in the interest of Pakistani officials to deny that Qaeda leaders were hiding in their country, but that despite such denials, the American authorities believed Mr. bin Laden and Mr. Zawahiri to be somewhere in the tribal areas straddling eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan.
While not as prominent as Mr. bin Laden, Mr. Zawahiri is deemed notorious enough to have a $25 million price on his head and to be included on the short list of people whom President Bush has authorized the C.I.A. to kill.
One American official said Mr. Zawahiri's medical training had helped him develop an expertise in chemical and biological weapons, making him a greater danger.
In October an audiotape by a speaker identified as Mr. Zawahiri was broadcast on Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based television network. In the message, he appeared to take credit for planning a suicide bombing in April 2002 that killed 14 German tourists outside a synagogue in Tunisia and a similar bombing in the Pakistani city of Karachi in which 11 French engineers died.
"The young holy warriors have already sent messages to Germany and France," the voice on the tape said. "However, if these doses are not enough, we are prepared with the help of God to increase the dosage."
The possibility that Mr. Zawahiri escaped from Afghanistan first surfaced last month, during a former Taliban official's interview with Pakistani reporters. The former official declared that Mr. Zawahiri was no longer in Afghanistan or Pakistan, according to a Pakistani reporter who was at the meeting.
That assertion was supported in the last week in interviews with two officials from different Pakistani government agencies. Both men have long experience monitoring the activities of suspected terrorists.
"I am convinced he is not in the region," one of the officials said of Mr. Zawahiri, although he added that he did believe that Mr. bin Laden remained in the tribal areas.
The official said his conclusion about Mr. Zawahiri was based on interrogations of Qaeda suspects in January. Those prisoners said that Mr. Zawahiri had fled after the bombing in Khost, but that they did not know where he had gone, the official said.
The other official said the details of Mr. Zawahiri's flight had been provided to him recently by an Afghan informer who was not a prisoner and who had a long history of providing reliable intelligence on other matters. This informer, too, said that he did not know where Mr. Zawahiri had gone in the boat, but that he believed it was to the Middle East, the second official recounted.
The official said the talk with the informer had prompted him to seek corroboration from another source, an Arab who had fought in Afghanistan, who not only backed the account but asserted that Mr. Zawahiri was in Algeria.
The official acknowledged that it was not possible to know whether the informers were telling the truth, but he emphasized that they had been reliable in the past.
Mr. Zawahiri may have had an easier time escaping than Mr. bin Laden. His face is less well known, and he would blend into a crowd better than the Qaeda leader, who is well over 6 feet tall. Neither man would lack for help in the region; both have spent many years building a network of hundreds of loyalists on both sides of the mountainous border.
Mr. Zawahiri has been described as the brains of Al Qaeda, the man with the ideas and theory, while Mr. bin Laden provided the money. He was born in 1951 into a prominent Egyptian family. An uncle was the first secretary general of the Arab League and his father was a university professor.
He joined the Muslim Brotherhood, a relatively moderate organization, as a teenager, according to American intelligence. While a medical student in Cairo, he was a founder of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which became a more radical group.
He was charged in the assassination of President Anwar el-Sadat in 1981, according to an American intelligence official. He was never convicted, but he spent three years in prison on an unrelated weapons charge. He said he was tortured in prison, a claim supported by human rights organizations.
After getting out of prison, the American official said, Mr. Zawahiri went to Afghanistan during the war against the Soviet occupation and worked as a doctor, treating refugees. Years later the Russian authorities arrested him as he tried to enter Chechnya without a visa.
The Russians never learned of his background and released him after six months, according to a lengthy account of Mr. Zawahiri's career published last year in The Wall Street Journal.
He returned to Afghanistan, where he aligned himself with Mr. bin Laden, in 1996, American intelligence officials said. In 1998 the two men announced the formation of the International Islamic Front for Jihad on Jews and Crusaders. They called on every Muslim "to comply with God's orders to kill Americans."
A few days later, two American embassies in East Africa were bombed in attacks orchestrated by Al Qaeda. Mr. Zawahiri was indicted by a federal grand jury for his alleged role.
Terrorism experts say Mr. bin Laden and Mr. Zawahiri do not need to be together or even in communication with each other to orchestrate terrorist attacks.
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