Al Qaeda: Internal Power Struggle Looms

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's moment of triumph was brief. Even before his soldiers had overrun the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque—a complex in the heart of the normally sleepy capital of Islamabad that had been occupied by extremists—the retaliations began. Early last week Afghan Taliban and Pakistani tribal militants launched suicide attacks against several Pakistani military convoys. Another bomber walked into a police recruiting center, killing 29 in a single gory blast. The next day militants launched a classic guerrilla ambush using small arms and rocket-propelled grenades that killed 14 Pakistani soldiers traveling in a convoy. The attacks demonstrated a shocking degree of organization and speed—not to mention strategic cunning. After former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto publicly backed Musharraf's counterterror operation against the Red Mosque, yet another suicide bomber blew himself up in the middle of a group waiting to attend a rally of her Pakistan Peoples Party in Islamabad. At least 13 people died in that incident, bringing the week's toll to more than 150 killed in retaliatory attacks since the Red Mosque was raided.

Who was the shadowy general behind the wave of violence? Pakistani and Taliban officials interviewed recently by NEWSWEEK say it was none other than Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the Qaeda No. 2 who has also been appearing in a recent flurry of audio- and videotapes. While Osama bin Laden has been keeping a low profile—he may be ill, U.S. intel officials say—Zawahiri has moved aggressively to take operational control of the group. In so doing, Zawahiri has provoked a potentially serious ideological split within Al Qaeda over whether he is growing too powerful, and has become obsessed with toppling Musharraf, according to two jihadists interviewed by NEWSWEEK last week.

After years in which Zawahiri seemed constantly on the run, his alleged orchestration of last week's attacks would be further evidence that Qaeda and Taliban forces are newly empowered and have consolidated control of a safe haven along the Pakistani border. A new National Intelligence Estimate out of Washington last week also concludes that Al Qaeda is resurgent in Pakistan—and more centrally organized than it has been at any time since 9/11. The NIE—a periodic intel assessment that is considered the most authoritative issued by the U.S. government—concluded Al Qaeda has "regenerated key elements" of its ability to attack the United States. These include a sanctuary in Pakistan's tribal regions of North Waziristan and Bajaur, and an intact hierarchy of top leadership and operational lieutenants.

The anti-Zawahiri faction in Al Qaeda fears his actions may be jeopardizing that safe haven, according to the two jihadists interviewed by NEWSWEEK. Both have proved reliable in the past: they are Omar Farooqi, the nom de guerre for a veteran Taliban fighter and chief liaison officer between insurgent forces in Afghanistan's Ghazni province, and Hemat Khan, a Taliban operative with links to Al Qaeda. They say Zawahiri's personal jihad has angered Al Qaeda's so-called Libyan faction, which intel officials believe may be led by the charismatic Abu Yahya al-Libi, who made a daring escape from an American high-security lockup at Baghram air base in 2005. The Libyan Islamists, along with bin Laden and other senior Qaeda leaders, would love to see Musharraf gone, too. But they fear that Zawahiri is inviting the Pakistani leader's wrath, prematurely opening up another battlefront before the jihadists have properly consolidated their position.

Pakistani intelligence officials believe Zawahiri was behind two attempts to kill Musharraf that failed in December 2003. Since then, Zawahiri has been on an almost personal crusade to assassinate or overthrow the Pakistani leader. In his latest video, which is among at least 10 audio and video spots he has released this year, and which was produced and put on a jihadist Web site in record time, Zawahiri condemned the Red Mosque raid and urged Pakistani Muslims to "revolt," or else "Musharraf will annihilate you." (The mosque apparently served as a safe house for foreign and jihadist militants moving between urban areas and the tribal agencies until Pakistani security forces stormed it on July 10, killing about 70 militants and students holed up inside.)

The Egyptian-born Zawahiri is nominal leader of the Egyptian faction, the Jamaat al-Jihad, which he united with Al Qaeda in the 1990s. It is larger and contains more senior people than the Libyan group. Both jihadist sources who spoke to NEWSWEEK say there is now what Khan calls "a clear divide" between the two factions. In part, the Libyans seem to be irked by Zawahiri's unchecked ego and self-righteousness. "The Libyans say he's too extremist," says Farooqi, and they resent Zawahiri for appearing to speak for bin Laden. "Libyans tell me that the sheik [bin Laden] has not appointed a successor and that only the U.S. government and the international media talk of Zawahiri as being the deputy," Farooqi says.

A senior U.S. official involved in counterterrorism policy, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was addressing sensitive matters, agrees that there are tensions between Al Qaeda's Egyptian and Libyan factions, as well as between Saudi and Central Asian elements. "These guys are not immune to nationalist tendencies," he says. John Arquilla, an intelligence expert at the Naval Postgraduate School who closely follows radical Islamist traffic, calls it "the battle for Al Qaeda's strategic soul. There is a profound strategic debate over whether to focus on overturning the government in Pakistan ... because that puts them in control of a nuclear capacity."

Bin Laden himself has not personally intervened to end the internal feud, according to the jihadist sources. For security reasons he rarely has face-to-face meetings with his deputies. "He doesn't want to get involved," says Khan. "He's already too busy with strategic planning and inspirational duties and with directing his own security." Instead, bin Laden has tried to resolve the dispute by dividing duties between the two factions and appointing a pair of mediators, these sources say.

The infighting also hasn't prevented Zawahiri and his Qaeda brethren, along with Afghan Taliban and militant Pakistani tribal leaders, from establishing a complex command, control, training and recruitment base largely in Waziristan, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials. U.S. officials say Al Qaeda has vastly improved its position there since Musharraf signed a controversial peace deal with North Waziristan's Pashtun tribal elders in September 2006, which gave pro-Taliban tribal militants full control of security in the area. Al Qaeda provides funding, training and ideological inspiration, while Afghan Taliban and Pakistani tribal leaders supply the manpower: both fighters and the growing ranks of suicide bombers. Scattered across the rugged and remote mountains are small training camps and command and communications posts set up in hundreds of mud-brick compounds.

Last week tribal officials, who have become increasingly radicalized, indicated the deal was off. The governor of Afghanistan's Khowst province, Arsala Jamal, told NEWSWEEK that Qaeda and Afghan and Pakistani militants have moved some of their top fighters and commanders from Waziristan into safe areas in Afghanistan in case Pakistani and U.S. forces launch retaliatory raids.


U.S. counterterrorism operatives have been reluctant to cross into Waziristan for fear of violating Pakistani sovereignty and upsetting Musharraf. The general—who has refused demands to relinquish his uniform since taking power in a coup—has faced dramatically rising opposition from both secular and Islamist Pakistanis. On Friday, Pakistan's Supreme Court ruled against Musharraf's summary suspension of the nation's top judge—a move that had triggered widespread demonstrations.

But Hank Crumpton, a longtime CIA senior official and former counterterrorism coordinator for the State Department, says U.S. reluctance must be overcome, because Musharraf can't deal with the problem alone. The Pakistani leader sent more than 100,000 troops to the tribal areas last year, but "they lacked the requisite counterinsurgency skills," Crumpton says. And if Musharraf doesn't confront the situation more squarely, he'll face a growing Taliban movement in Pakistan. "There is encroaching Talibanization now outside the tribal areas into Pakistan proper," says Crumpton, a judgment seconded by a confidential report from Pakistan's Interior Ministry, obtained by NEWSWEEK.

U.S. and Pakistani officials hope that Zawahiri overreaches in his zeal to kill Musharraf, and they get an intel break on his whereabouts. Crumpton says the United States needs to lead an effort with anti-Taliban local tribes, some of whom have been targeted by Al Qaeda. "If we are attacked here [in the United States], which we will be, it almost certainly will have originated from that territory. What will we do then?" One hopes that Ayman Al-Zawahiri—and his resurgent Al Qaeda—can be stopped before that happens.