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AP Enterprise: Al-Qaida videos, audios reveal a leadership still very much in control

    When Islamic radicals killed 52 people in London two years ago, it took nearly a month for Osama bin Laden’s top deputy to blame Britain itself for the carnage.
    But this week, when the No. 2 man in al-Qaida decided to weigh in on Pakistan’s bloody crackdown on a radical mosque, he was able to get his violent message onto hard-line Islamic Web sites in a matter of days.
    Analysts and intelligence experts say the speed and frequency with which Ayman al-Zawahri has been issuing statements recently does not reflect the actions of a man cowering in a remote cave, cut off from the outside world and unable to direct terror operations.
    If anything, the video and audio tapes offer chilling evidence that al-Qaida’s leaders are in greater command than previously feared.
    ‘‘The notion of them hiding in a deep, dark primitive cave isolated from electricity and all communication with the outside is strongly misguided,’’ said Ben Venzke of the IntelCenter, a U.S.-based intelligence group that monitors terrorism messages. ‘‘The speed which they have demonstrated (getting messages out) shows that they are far from cut off.’’
    Venzke said the surge in al-Qaida propaganda messages began in 2006, and the terror network has doubled the pace this year. The group’s media wing, al-Sahab, released 58 audio and video messages last year; this year’s tally is already 62.
    U.S. counterterrorism analysts said this week that al-Qaida has restored its operating capabilities to a level unseen since the months before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. And while the intelligence does not point to a specific threat, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said this week that he has a ‘‘gut feeling’’ the United States faces a heightened risk of attack this summer.
    Al-Zawahri is certainly acting like a man with renewed confidence.
    Since January, he has issued at least 10 audio and video tapes on a host of developments, from America’s security crackdown in Iraq, to Britain’s decision to grant a knighthood to author Salman Rushdie, to the Palestinian group Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip. Two of the messages came just this week.
    The videos are getting more and more sophisticated, and include news footage taken from Arab and Western broadcasters. At times al-Zawahri analyzes what the news commentators are saying, meaning he has seen the broadcasts.
    In several cases, the turnaround time for al-Zawahri’s messages has been breathtakingly swift.
    It took only 11 days for the Egyptian surgeon-turned-terrorist to issue an audio taped homage to a slain Taliban commander in May, and the same amount of time for him to congratulate Hamas on its power grab in the Gaza Strip the next month.
    Congressional Democrats in the United States passed a bill tying funding for the war in Iraq to a timetable for withdrawal of American troops, and al-Zawahri responded in a mocking videotape just nine days later. The May 5 video did not mention that President Bush vetoed the bill, leading to speculation it was recorded between the bill’s passage on April 26 passage and the May 1 veto.
    Al-Zawahri’s reaction to the siege of the Red Mosque in Pakistan was even more remarkable. The July 11 audio message, released with a video showing a still image of the al-Qaida leader, came out eight days after the siege began in Islamabad.
    In the tape, al-Zawahri refers to the standoff as a ‘‘dirty, despicable crime,’’ making it likely he made the recording several days into the siege, which culminated in a deadly army assault the day before the al-Qaida leader’s statement appeared.
    The absence of bin Laden from recent al-Qaida messages may be a reflection of a long-held belief that the two men are no longer in hiding together, according to a senior Pakistani intelligence agent. Bin Laden was last heard from in a July 1, 2006 audio tape in which he voiced support for the new leader of al-Qaida in Iraq and warned nations not to send troops to fight a hard-line Islamic regime that had seized power in Somalia.
    ‘‘There is no indication that they (bin Laden and al-Zawahri) are together, and it is understandable because they must be hiding in separate places for strategic reasons,’’ the agent said.
    Rohan Gunaratna, an analyst who heads the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore, said bin Laden’s silence is an indication that al-Zawahri has supplanted him as al-Qaida’s supreme commander.
    ‘‘Ayman al-Zawahri has emerged as the leader of the global jihad movement. He’s not only speaking on behalf of al-Qaida, but as the leader of the al-Qaida organization and its associated homegrown groups,’’ he said.
    That assessment was disputed by Venzke, who said it is impossible to draw any conclusions from bin Laden’s silence. He noted the terror chief has remained off the airwaves before, only to return with a flurry of statements.
    The Pakistani intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the secretive nature of his work, said he was not surprised by al-Zawahri’s swift statement about the army raid on the Red Mosque, saying it was a clear indication al-Zawahri or people close to him have access to the Internet and sophisticated communications equipment.
    That theory was bolstered by a comment from al-Zawahri, who claimed in a Tuesday audio message to have read an article on the Internet by a slain Hamas leader.
    Ahmed Rashid, the author of several books on Islamic extremism in South and Central Asia, said it is a mistake to think of al-Qaida leaders holed up in the mountains.
    ‘‘They have studio facilities, they have access to all sorts of communications and news and all the rest of it, so they are not hiding out in some cave,’’ he said. ‘‘They are very well settled somewhere.’’
    Still, Rashid said the men are likely to be hiding on the remote Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan, rather than in a city like Karachi where they and their men would have difficulty staying out of sight.
    Several top al-Qaida operatives have been nabbed in Pakistani cities in recent years, most notably Abu Zubaydah, Ramzi Binalshibh and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.
    While the border is barren and lawless, some of the mud-brick compounds of wealthy tribal elders have the latest in modern amenities and technology. Pakistani forces hold little sway in the region, making the area an ideal refuge.
    Regardless of where al-Zawahri and bin Laden are holed up, Venzke said the volume of video and audio messages belies the notion — perpetuated by the Bush administration — that al-Qaida’s leaders are so busy trying not to get caught that their ability to direct operatives has been substantially degraded.
    ‘‘The operational risks of releasing a video from a covert point to a public point are much greater than communicating from one covert point to another covert point,’’ said Venzke. ‘‘If they have the ability to publicly release videos, then they certainly have retained the ability to communicate with their cells and affiliates around the world.’’
    ———
    Associated Press writer Paul Haven has been covering terrorism for the AP since 2001 and is now based in Madrid, Spain. AP writers Munir Ahmed and Stephen Graham in Islamabad and Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.

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