Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Whither Zawahiri?

Where's al Qaeda's Ayman al Zawahiri? He's been targeted by airstrikes in the past, including one where he managed to slip away only minutes before the attack. It's not the first time that he was targeted, and it surely will not be the last.
It is rare - almost never - when US forces get to count the dead enemy and take toll of who precisely has been attacking them. "I interact on a daily basis with an enemy that has both local and foreign elements," says Captain Loius Frketic, who commands a battalion known as the "Able Main Warlords" in Kunar province's Pech Valley. He is sure they are foreigners because he can hear Arab voices on the radio communications he intercepts. "But just what the foreign element is bringing to the fight, I don't exactly know."

Al-Qaeda's senior leadership was last targeted - two years ago - only 32 kilometers from his base in the neighboring Bajaur district of Pakistan. A few hours before that attack, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's top lieutenant, is believed to have slipped away. Until four years ago, US intelligence experts believed that bin Laden himself was traveling in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province in the company of Zawahiri. Though the formerly inseparable pair is believed to have split up - likely out of security concerns - their paths may well still cross - at least for secret meetings.

In such meetings, senior al-Qaeda figures in Pakistan often review videotapes of the fighting in Afghanistan taken by surrogates and plan funding for future operations.

For fighters in the 173rd Combat Team fighting in eastern Afghanistan north of the Khyber Pass, just knowing that they fight in proximity to the masterminds of the September 11, 2001, attacks highlights their own sense of a great divide: a split between what the US forces can and must do in Afghanistan, and what al-Qaeda is planning across the border in Pakistan.

Platoon leaders in regular clashes with insurgents here say that their foe is under the direct sway of al-Qaeda. "When we are in a village, we always know that al-Qaeda and the Taliban will soon be back to try to undercut us and try to one-up us," said Sergeant Mark Patterson, whose platoon in the Korengal Valley has been in some of the heaviest fighting anywhere in Afghanistan. US forces based out of the "KOP", or Korengal Outpost, face a higher concentration of al-Qaeda-backed insurgents than most regions of Afghanistan, not least because an Egyptian lieutenant of al-Qaeda operates among them, say US officers.

While US forces rarely see their enemy, their mission is to fight for the hearts and minds of the same people al-Qaeda and its affiliates try to win over. While the insurgents try to operate with the cover of the what Chinese leader Mao Zedong once called the "sea of the people", US forces are trying to pry away that popular backing.
It's a strategy that has worked with some success in Iraq, and could work in Afghanistan and along the Afghan-Pakistani border, especially as the jihadis inflict a terrible toll through bombings and attacks on those who might otherwise be amenable to harboring the Taliban out of tribal loyalties and the custom of giving shelter to visitors.

At the same time, the US and its allies have to deal with not only al Qaeda, but the Taliban and its elusive thug, Baitullah Mehsud. Five of his followers have been formally charged with Benazir Bhutto's assassination. Meanwhile, Afghan intel services nabbed a Taliban field commander for northwestern Afghanistan during a raid in Herat province.

We might not know where Zawahiri is, but the disembodied voice of Osama has been spotted on a video tape (well, there's just audio from bin Laden, which has become his modus operandi on these tapes). No mention of the five year anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, and it refers instead to the cartoon jihad in Europe. Curious. Very curious.

Others noting Osama's tape include Jammie and Flap's Blog.

Rusty at the Jawa Report thinks that this is proof that Osama's dead because the cartoon jihad started two years ago, and there's nothing really new on point - and the lack of mention of Geert Wilders film despite its pending release suggests that Osama's seriously behind the times. He posits that the audio is from at least 2006 and the terror video producers at al Sahab didn't have anything else close to work with, so this is what we've got.

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