Ayman al-Zawahiri, a 59-year-old Egyptian, was named by the US in April 2009 as al Qaeda’s chief commander and its operational and strategic leader. A dedicated ideologue, Al-Zawahiri is a qualified surgeon and the grandson of the imam of one of Egypt’s most important mosques. He joined the banned Egyptian Islamic Jihad as a teenager and was imprisoned at least twice. He was also reportedly tortured in jail. In 1998, he formally merged his organisation with al Qaeda, becoming a confidante of Osama bin Laden. Osama Bin Laden’s chosen biographer has referred to him as the “real brains” of al Qaeda. The US State Department has offered a $25 million award for information leading to al-Zawahiri’s capture.
Another Egyptian militant, Saif al-Adel (sword of justice) is said to be either 51 or 54. Suspected of planning the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, he fled his homeland in 1988, travelling to Afghanistan to fight the soviets. He is thought to have established the al Qaeda training facility at Ras Kamboni in Somalia and may have trained Somalis who took part in the first battle of Mogadishu against US forces which saw two Black Hawk helicopters shot down by rocket-propelled grenades. He is also said to have opposed the 9/11 attacks, saying that they were a huge setback for the organisation. There is a $5 million reward for information on his whereabouts.
Sulaiman Abu Gaith
Sulaiman Abu Gaith, 45, is a Kuwaiti regarded as one of al Qaeda’s senior leaders and an official spokesmen. Abu Gaith rose to prominence during the 1991 Gulf war, during which he first denounced Saddam Hussein and then turned his attention towards the Kuwaiti government and royal family. In 2000 he left Kuwait for Afghanistan where he met Osama bin Laden and joined al Qaeda. He is reportedly one of those who supported Osama’s plan to attack the twin towers and is also the author of several books on the al Qaeda version of Jihad. His current whereabouts are unknown. It was rumoured that he had been imprisoned in Iran, but late last year Kuwaiti officials suggested he may have been freed to return to Afghanistan.
Abu Hafiza is a Moroccan military psychiatrist thought to be one of al Qaeda’s top planners. He appears to have orchestrated the 2004 terror attacks in Spain. His self-proclaimed intention was to impact Spain psychologically, influence Spain’s elections, and to eventually topple the state heads of Britain, Italy, and the USA. In 2003 he reportedly travelled through Pakistan and Saudi Arabia recruiting combatants to fight Americans in Fallujah, Iraq. He also believed that Iraq would be the main theatre for fighting the US.
Fazl Abdullah Mohammed
With a bounty of $5 million, Fazl Abdullah Mohammed, 36, is sometimes reported to be the leader of al Qaeda in East Africa. He is wanted by the US for his alleged role in the 1998 US Embassy bombings and also the attack on the USS Cole. He was in Somalia during the first battle of Mogadishu. He was again thought to be in Somalia during fighting in 2007 and was reportedly killed by a US airstrike. However, Somalian websites reported in 2009 that he had been appointed the head of al Qaeda in East Africa.
Where he was(n’t)
Afghanistan — According to Wikileaks, after the US started bombing his mountain hideout in Tora Bora, bin Laden fled not south but north, with his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri towards Jalalabad in Afghanistan, reportedly borrowing $7000 from a protector and travelling for three months straight in December 2001. This intelligence was gleaned from Guantanamo detainees. Before fleeing, however, bin Laden and Zawahiri are reported to have met followers and exhorted bin Laden’s family members to take shelter in Pakistan. From Jalalabad bin Laden went to Kunar from where he is supposed to have crossed into Pakistan in 2002.
Waziristan, Pakistan — In December 11, 2005, Atiyah abd al Rahman instructed Abu Musab al Zarqawi in a letter to “send messengers from your end to Waziristan so that they meet with the brothers of the leadership”. Al-Rahman also indicated that bin Laden and al-Qaeda were “weak”. The Washington Post reported that the letter was deemed authentic by intelligence officials. In 2010 Nasser al-Bahri, a bodyguard for bin Laden in the late 1990s, wrote a book with French journalist Georges Malbrunot called In the Shadow of Bin Laden. Al-Bahri claimed that bin Laden was hiding in the regions in Afghanistan or along the border with Pakistan, writing “He can move with the protection of the tribal leaders and tribal connections in this region along Pakistan, Waziristan.”
K2, Pakistan — In 2008, the Dubai-based news channel Al Arabiya reported that Osama bin Laden was hiding in the K2 Mountain and US secret services were planning a major military operation encompassing Pakistan’s tribal areas to drive him out of hiding.
Chitral, Pakistan — In March 2009, Rohan Gunaratna wrote in The New York Daily News that the hunt for bin Laden had taken place in Chitral District, including the Kalam Valley. He also said that captured Al-Qaeda leaders had named Chitral as bin Laden’s hiding place.
Parachinar, Pakistan — In 2009 Thomas Gillespie and John A Agnewof UCLA used mathematical models and biogeographic theories that explain how animal species spread out to predict that bin Laden was in Parachinar. In their research, they factored in his 6ft 4in frame, his need for security and electricity and also concluded that he should be in a large town with a similar culture to Afghanistan so he can remain anonymous. They even identified three compounds in Parachinar, 12 miles inside Pakistan, using satellite aided geographic analysis.
Savzenar, Iran — In June 2010, there were reports that Osama was in the mountainous Iranian town of Savzevar with close aides including Ayman al-Zawahiri. The Australian newspaper reported Israeli military intelligence website DEBKAfile claimed that Turkish officials knew that Osama had been in Iran for the past 5 years. But in an interview with George Stephanopoulos on “Good Morning, America”, Ahmedinejad countered the claim by saying that bin Laden was more likely in Washington DC. “Your question is laughable,” said Ahmadinejad.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, May 8th, 2011.