Nine years after their mysterious disappearance following the toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the U.S. still believes the two top al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are in hiding in north-western Pakistan.
According to the latest report on al-Qaeda and its expanding network by a powerful Congressional committee, the two leaders are hiding in tribal areas on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The Senate Committee’s views are in variance with those of Pakistani leaders, who believe Osama might well be dead.
In a major observation, the report said al-Qaeda appears to have increased its influence among the myriad Islamist militant groups operating along the Af-Pak border.
The 21-page report by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations examines the role of al-Qaeda in international terrorism and its expansion in new areas — Yemen and Somalia — beyond its nerve-centre in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
U.S. officials remain concerned that al-Qaeda militants maintain bases and training camps in Pakistan.
“Laden and Zawahiri are believed to be hiding in north-western Pakistan along with most other senior operatives. Al-Qaeda leaders have issued statements encouraging Pakistani Muslims to ‘resist’ American ‘occupiers’ in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to fight against Pakistan’s U.S.-allied politicians and officers,” the report released by Senator John Kerry, the Committee’s Chairman said.
A 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on terrorist threats to the U.S. concluded that al-Qaeda “has protected or regenerated key elements of its homeland attack capability, including a safe haven in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, operational lieutenants and its top leadership.”
The report prepared by the Majority Staff of the Senate Committee said Islamabad reportedly has remanded to U.S. custody roughly 500 al-Qaeda fighters since 2001, including several senior operatives.
U.S. officials say that drone-launched U.S. missile attacks and Pakistan’s pressing of military offensives against extremist groups in the border areas have meaningfully disrupted al-Qaeda activities there while inflicting heavy human losses.
The August death of al-Qaeda-allied Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, reportedly caused by a U.S.-launched missile, may have thrown Islamist militants in western Pakistan into disarray.
“Some analysts worry, however, that successful military operations are driving al-Qaeda fighters into Pakistani cities where they will be harder to target and, fuelling already significant anti-American sentiments among the Pakistani people,” it said.
“The Pakistani military has conducted successful counter-insurgency campaigns to wrest two parts of the country from Pakistani Taliban control, the Swat Valley and South Waziristan. Still militants continue to use some of the rugged tribal areas as bases of operations,” the report said.