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Pakistan springboard for al Qaida

Washington, May 18: Recent attacks and a wealth of ominous new intelligence information show that the al Qaida leadership — declared all but dead by many experts — is reinvigorated, now based in Iran and Pakistan, and orchestrating terrorist strikes around the world, US officials said yesterday.

Some US officials, from President Bush on down, have in recent weeks described the central command of the global terror network as being crippled and unable to coordinate significant new attacks.

But information uncovered in last week’s bombings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, implicates members of the al Qaida top command structure, according to several knowledgeable US officials and other counter-terrorism authorities.

They said they believe those al Qaida leaders also have played a direct role in other significant plots underway in East Africa, South Asia and elsewhere, some of which appear to be “imminent.”

The officials added they are investigating whether al Qaida played a role in Friday’s attacks in Casablanca, Morocco. The preliminary investigation indicates that the bombings, which killed at least 41 people, bore the signatures of an al Qaida operation, said two US officials.

“Major operations for al-Qaida have always been done with the knowledge, support, blessing and backing of the al Qaida leadership,” said one US official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“At least in the Saudi case, I don’t think it’s anything different. We’re pretty confident that it was senior leadership who were behind it. It didn’t just spring up out of nowhere.”

In the Riyadh bombings, US and Saudi officials are focusing on several men they believe are linked to the al Qaida leadership. The CIA now believes that one of the key planners of Monday’s attacks may have been a senior al Qaida operative in Saudi Arabia named Abu Bakr al Asdi, who is about 30 years old and has links with alleged September 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.

A member of the Saudi royal family said last week that bin Laden himself was involved in plotting the Riyadh attacks.

But US officials say it is too early to directly implicate bin Laden, who is believed to be hiding in Pakistan’s rugged North-West Frontier Province, near the border with Afghanistan, with his top aide, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

US officials did, however, confirm yesterday that they are scrutinising with renewed interest an audio tape purportedly made by bin Laden in February, in which he warned Arab leaders not to ally with the US in what was then an anticipated war against Iraq. The man on the tape singles out Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Pakistan, Jordan, Yemen and Nigeria.

The CIA and National Security Agency are closely monitoring two areas where they believe al Qaida leaders are residing: Pakistan and Iran. In recent months, the CIA and other elements of the American intelligence community have concluded that much of al Qaida’s top leadership — aside from bin Laden and Zawahiri — is in Iran, most probably on the rugged border areas near Pakistan.

“There have been several reports that a number of their senior officials have been in Iran for a while,” said one official. Among those key players thought to be in Iran are Saif al-Adel, bin Laden’s former chief of security; Abu Hafs the Mauritanian, another top bin Laden aide; and Saad bin Laden, a son of Osama bin Laden and his heir apparent.

US investigators believe Adel has risen to perhaps the top operational spot in al Qaida since Mohammed’s arrest in March.

US officials yesterday said so much intelligence has been gathered in recent days about looming al Qaida attacks that they and their counterparts around the globe have mobilised in a frantic effort to stop them. The overwhelming majority of the intelligence “chatter” concerns al Qaida activity overseas, rather than the US, authorities said.

``We continue to believe there is a high likelihood of terrorist acts around the world in a lot of places,'' said one U.S. official.

The official cited ``lots of indicators'' - including electronic intercepts, ``human intelligence'' information gained through undercover work and other means and interrogations of al Qaida suspects - as evidence of impending attacks.

``All of it points to imminent terrorist acts in a large number of places,'' the official said.

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