U.S. confirms intense search for bin Laden's heir apparent
WASHINGTON - As the hunt for al-Qaida 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 Muhammad Husain, is the "operational link" connecting bin Laden and others who conceived the Sept. 11 terror attacks with the 19 hijackers who carried them out.
Zubeida, thought to be about 30 years old, could well be at bin Laden's side as he tries to elude a global dragnet. But unlike bin Laden and aide Ayman Zawahiri, whose movements are limited by their high profiles, authorities fear that Zubeida also may have slipped out of Afghanistan and into Pakistan or almost anywhere else to activate new plots and to regroup al-Qaida forces.
Zubeida's role makes him a higher priority than even Zawahiri, who authorities say is more of a theoretician. Since the death last month of Muhammad Atef, Zubeida is also believed to have taken on the role of al-Qaida's chief military strategist, according to U.S. officials and counterterrorism experts.
Zubeida has well-established personal ties to many of the al-Qaida cell leaders and soldiers in far-flung posts, whom he cultivated as the group's longtime liaison to the worldwide terrorist community and overseer of camps in Afghanistan. Those al-Qaida supporters, officials said, could provide Zubeida with safe harbor, financial and logistical support and manpower needed to keep al-Qaida going, even if bin Laden is killed or apprehended.
Authorities cite a copy of al-Qaida's plan for succession of power, recently smuggled out of Afghanistan, which states that certain key 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-Qaida," said one Bush official who confirmed the intensive manhunt for 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-Qaida 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.
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, officials 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 crowded tourist sites in Jordan.
Zubeida also has been al-Qaida'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."
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 Los Angeles Times.
So little is known about 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.
Zubeida for years operated an al-Qaida 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-Qaida chieftain, said one FBI counterterrorism agent.
"He's probably in Pakistan," the agent added. "He prefers it there."
But Zubeida also has traveled extensively to Europe, Asia and Africa to activate terrorist plots, maintain liaisons with terror cells and to screen would-be guerrillas for training, according to the FBI and other U.S. counterterrorism authorities.
Zubeida was never charged in the embassy bombings or the millennium plots against LAX and the Jordanian tourist sites, although he has been linked to them by intelligence reports, law enforcement investigations and the testimony of al-Qaida defectors, including convicted millennium bomber Ahmed Ressam. Authorities believe he also played a role in the bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole in Yemen in 2000, which killed 17 soldiers, as well as the foiled suicide attack on the U.S. Embassy in Paris last year.
Authorities believe Zubeida played a similar role in the Sept. 11 attacks, acting as an intermediary between bin Laden and those directly involved in the plot, including the 19 hijackers.
"He is an implementer; he takes the orders from bin Laden and translates them into operational plans and implements them," said Vince Cannistraro, the former counterterrorism chief for the CIA, who is familiar with the ongoing investigation.
Now, Zubeida "is activating the worldwide networks on behalf of bin Laden," said Cannistraro, citing CIA sources. "He is the guy who is trying to implement the next terrorist operation ... but they don't know where he is."
"He may be in (Afghanistan) but he may be outside," added Cannistraro. "What they do know is that money is flowing and that the cells seem to be moving and active, and that the worldwide network reported back to him and through him to bin Laden. So Abu Zubeida is perhaps the most important guy out there."
At times, Zubeida has traveled as a honey salesman and in other disguises, to visit Bosnia and parts of Africa where al-Qaida is strong, including Sudan and Somalia.
As "emir" of Khalden and about five other camps, the FBI agent said, Zubeida met with many members of al-Qaida cells from around the world and has maintained relationships with them.
"He receives young men from all countries. He accepts you or rejects you," Ressam testified last summer. He said Zubeida paid for all his expenses at the camps and made travel arrangements for him and others.
One of his aliases, according to a federal law enforcement document, is "Osama Sweden," and it is known that some Islamic militants from Sweden were present at Khalden camp when Zubeida oversaw it in 1998, according to court testimony provided by Ressam.