WASHINGTON — After a U.S. airstrike leveled a small compound in Pakistan's lawless tribal regions in January 2006, President Pervez Musharraf and his intelligence officials announced that several senior Al Qaeda operatives had been killed, and that the top prize was an elusive Egyptian who was believed to be a chemical weapons expert.
But current and former U.S. intelligence officials now believe that the Egyptian, Abu Khabab Masri, is alive and well -- and in charge of resurrecting Al Qaeda's program to develop or obtain weapons of mass destruction.
Given the problems with previous U.S. intelligence assessments of weapons of mass destruction, officials are careful not to overstate Al Qaeda's capabilities, and they emphasize that there is much they don't know because of the difficulty in getting information out of the mountainous area of northwest Pakistan where the network has reestablished itself.
But they say Al Qaeda has regenerated at least some of the robust research and development effort that it lost when the U.S. military bombed its Afghanistan headquarters and training camps in late 2001, and they believe it is once again trying to develop or obtain chemical, biological, radiological and even nuclear weapons to use in attacks on the United States and other enemies.
For now, the intelligence officials believe, that effort is largely focused on developing and using cyanide, chlorine and other poisons that are unlikely to cause the kind of mass-casualty attack that is usually associated with weapons of mass destruction.
Intelligence officials say they base their current assessments on anecdotal evidence gleaned from electronic intercepts, information provided by informants and captured Al Qaeda members and the tracking of money flows and militant websites. One international counter-terrorism official said there were indications that some operatives had received immunizations to protect themselves against biological agents.
Abu Khabab, whose real name is Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar, is believed to have set up rudimentary labs with at least a handful of aides, and to have provided a stable environment in which scientists and researchers can experiment with chemicals and other compounds, said several former intelligence officials familiar with Al Qaeda's weapons program.
Recent intelligence shows that Abu Khabab, 54, is training Western recruits for chemical attacks in Europe and perhaps the United States, just as he did when he ran the "Khabab Camp" at Al Qaeda's sprawling Darunta training complex in Afghanistan's Tora Bora region before the Sept. 11 attacks, according to one senior U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the CIA's intelligence is classified.
Some experts questioned how far Al Qaeda could get in reconstituting a weapons program in the mountains of Pakistan.
"They are hemmed in in a way that makes it hard to do," said John V. Parachini, a senior analyst on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction at Rand Corp. "It's hard to get the industrial infrastructure together to do these things, and it's hard to get people that have the expertise to fashion these materials into weapons of mass destruction."
Several international counter-terrorism officials concurred with the U.S. intelligence assessment of Al Qaeda's weapons' effort. Raphael Perl, who heads the Action Against Terrorism Unit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said it is widely assumed that Al Qaeda developed chemical weapons years ago, and that if it doesn't have biological capabilities already, "they are certainly not far from it."
Given that Abu Khabab "has the technical knowledge," he said, "it's very, very clear that they are working both in the chemical and biological fields."
Pakistani Information Minister Nisar Memon refused to comment on Abu Khabab and Al Qaeda's weapons program, but security officials from three Pakistani intelligence agencies, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that he is alive.
The senior U.S. intelligence official described Al Qaeda's effort as "a very small, very compartmented program, and not nearly on the scale of what they had going on in Afghanistan, because you don't have the size, the security, you don't have the ease of movement" that the Taliban government provided.
Chris Quillen, a former CIA analyst specializing in Al Qaeda's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, said the network's program in Pakistan could have made significant progress without authorities knowing about it by operating in small compounds, as it did in Afghanistan.
"I am not saying the programs are great and ready for an attack tomorrow," said Quillen, who left the agency in August 2006 and is now a U.S. government intelligence contractor. "But whatever they lost in the 2001 invasion, they are back to that level at this point."