America's Next Most Wanted

Article excerpt

Byline: Sami Yousafzai, Ron Moreau, And Daniel Klaidman

A year after the Abbottabad raid,al Qaeda's mastermind is still loose. Bin Laden's death has only made the hunt harder.

A year after the death of Osama bin Laden, American special operators are training their sights on his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the former Egyptian Army surgeon widely regarded as the mastermind of major attacks against Americans and other targets. And forces loyal to Zawahiri, who affectionately call him "Glasses" because of his trademark oversize spectacles, are determined to guard their leader.

Zawahiri's safety was the main subject of conversation when several senior al Qaeda operatives and a handful of other militants sat down for a dinner meeting in North Waziristan six months ago, according to a well-placed Taliban source. The host of the dinner, from a prominent Taliban family, had a sheep slaughtered in honor of his Arab guests. Over a meal of mutton kebabs and pilau, the men expressed concerns about Zawahiri's security in light of bin Laden's bloody end. They said Zawahiri's handlers and tribal hosts had strongly advised him "to move to a new place," to stop using electronic devices, to limit his exposure by issuing fewer audio and video propaganda tapes, and to exercise extreme caution in dealing with couriers.

"We are hoping he can avoid being captured by the U.S. for at least 10 more years," the source says. One of the al Qaeda operatives at the dinner, which took place outside the town of Miran Shah, asked if the Afghan Taliban would consider harboring Zawahiri if he decided to hide in Afghanistan. According to the Taliban source, the Afghan was noncommittal.

Taliban and al Qaeda operatives who have met Zawahiri say he is highly respected in militant circles, both as a thinker and a doer. He's not nearly as charismatic as bin Laden, but in some ways, he's more important. Bin Laden was the face of terror, but Zawahiri is the mind: an important ideologue as well as an operational commander.

He's under increasing pressure now to carry out a fresh act of headline-grabbing mayhem. "Zawahiri needs to terrorize in order to really cement his position as bin Laden's long-term successor," says Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official who has advised the Obama administration on counterterror policy. Yet the new al Qaeda chief faces a dilemma: the more involved he gets in planning and propaganda, the more exposed he becomes. And he can't conduct terror operations if he's dead, much less serve as a symbol of al Qaeda resilience.

American intelligence on him is sketchy; the last time U.S. agents are known to have had actionable intelligence on his whereabouts was in January 2006, when they learned that he had been invited to an Islamic holiday dinner in a mud-walled compound on Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. A Predator drone fired a salvo of Hellfire missiles at the compound, killing some 18 people, including several al Qaeda militants. But Zawahiri was not among them.

"There are indicators that some elements of the Pakistani government may be protecting Zawahiri," says a U.S. intel official who did not want to be named discussing sensitive information. "We have reports that he's been hanging out in Karachi for brief periods, and we just don't think he's going to be doing that without a lot of people knowing about it."

At the moment, it would be politically fraught, however, for American special operators and CIA agents to carry out an attack even in the remote tribal areas, much less in a city. Pakistan's political and military leaders, humiliated and furious that Washington kept them in the dark about the bin Laden raid and other missions, have forbidden the United States from conducting drone strikes in their territory. American forces are respecting Pakistani wishes--for now--in an effort to "lower the temperature," says one senior administration official. …