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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Key Al Qaeda Strategist Gains Priority in Terrorism Dragnet

Hunt: Abu Zubeida's job is to keep the network alive, officials say. He may have left Afghanistan to activate new plots.

January 09, 2002|JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — As the hunt for Al Qaeda leaders expands beyond Afghanistan, authorities confirmed Tuesday that they are pursuing one man as intensely as Osama bin Laden himself--an elusive Palestinian who they believe has been entrusted with keeping the terrorist organization's global network of cells alive and operational.

Authorities are also aggressively pursuing the theory that Abu Zubeida, whose real name is Zain Al-Abidin Mohammed Husain, is the "operational link" connecting Bin Laden and others who conceived the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks with the hijackers who carried them out.

Abu Zubeida, thought to be about 30, could well be at Bin Laden's side as he tries to elude a global dragnet. But unlike Bin Laden and his aide Ayman Zawahiri, whose movements are limited by their high profiles, Abu Zubeida may have slipped out of Afghanistan and into Pakistan or almost anywhere else to activate new plots and try to regroup Al Qaeda forces, authorities fear.

Abu Zubeida's role makes him a higher priority than even Zawahiri, who authorities say is more of a theoretician. Since the reported death in November of Mohammed Atef, Abu Zubeida is believed to have taken on the added role of Al Qaeda's chief military strategist, according to U.S. officials and counterterrorism experts.

Abu Zubeida has well-established personal ties to many of the Al Qaeda cell leaders and soldiers in far-flung posts, whom he cultivated as the group's longtime liaison to terrorists worldwide and as overseer of training camps in Afghanistan. Those Al Qaeda supporters, officials said, could provide Abu Zubeida with harbor, financial and logistical support and manpower needed to keep Al Qaeda going, even if Bin Laden is killed or caught.

Authorities cite a copy of Al Qaeda's plan for succession of power, recently smuggled out of Afghanistan, which states that certain leaders must flee as opposing forces are closing in, to ensure that the terrorist network has the leadership it needs to live and fight another day.

"Zubeida is the director of external affairs for Al Qaeda," said one Bush administration official who confirmed the intensive manhunt for Abu Zubeida. "As part of that, he ran the camp infrastructure, he brought [terrorists] in, trained them and got them back to their country of origin or the country Al Qaeda wanted to place them in.

"He is a very important cog in the machinery and certainly . . . after Bin Laden is gone, would be someone who would take over," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He is someone we are extremely interested in."

Abu Zubeida is the man believed responsible for putting Bin Laden's plans into action, officials said. He has played a direct role in orchestrating most, if not all, of the group's recent attacks, they added. Those include the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, which killed 224 people, and plots to blow up Los Angeles International Airport and tourist sites in Jordan.

Abu Zubeida also has been Al Qaeda's global emissary, slipping undetected from one country to another. Of those in Bin Laden's inner circle, "he is the one who travels," said one senior counterterrorism official from the Clinton administration. "He's good at that stuff--traveling around the world with fake names, assumed passports, and he is very good at disguise. I don't think anyone knows where he is, even though everyone would love to find him."

Abu Zubeida has used at least 37 aliases and accompanying fake passports and identification documents from Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and perhaps Morocco, according to a confidential U.S. investigative document obtained by The Times.

So little is known about Abu Zubeida that even his country of origin and his age are in question. Some identity documents indicate he was born in Saudi Arabia, but authorities say he is a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip. Few photos of him exist, and it is unclear how he became such an important confidant of Bin Laden.

Trips to Europe, Africa

For years, Abu Zubeida operated an Al Qaeda safe house in Peshawar, Pakistan, and has frequently moved between that country and Afghanistan, often going underground for long periods only to resurface and resume his role as an Al Qaeda chieftain, said one FBI counterterrorism agent.

"He's probably in Pakistan," the agent said. "He prefers it there."

Abu Zubeida also has traveled extensively to Europe, Asia and Africa to orchestrate and activate terrorist plots, maintain liaisons with terror cells and screen would-be guerrillas for training, according to the FBI and other U.S. counterterrorism authorities.

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