Pakistan May Have No. 2 Al Qaeda Leader Surrounded
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 18, 2004 – Pakistani officials believe they have the No. 2
man in al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, cornered.
Pakistani forces have about 200 al Qaeda fighters surrounded close to the
border with Afghanistan. News reports said he Pakistani military is waiting
until daybreak to launch air attacks on the area.
Zawahiri is a close ally and confidant of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden.
Western officials suspect him of helping to plan the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in
the United States.
He also is suspected of complicity in the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen,
terrorist acts in Egypt and the bombings of American embassies in Kenya and
Tanzania. The United States has offered a reward of up to $25 million for his
Zawahiri and bin Laden met when the two men fought against the Soviets in
Afghanistan in the 1980s. Zawahiri was the leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad
terror group. He is a physician.
In the past two months, Pakistan has made a concerted effort to sweep through
the border area with Afghanistan. The mountainous area between the two
countries has given Taliban and al Qaeda members the opportunity to slip back
and forth between the two countries.
The Pakistan military seldom entered the area. It was a stronghold of Pathan
tribes, and an unwritten agreement among tribal leaders and the Pakistani
government left them undisturbed. The government of Pakistani President Purvez
Musharraf worked with tribal leaders before launching the offensive. Many
tribal leaders agreed with the government and worked to identify areas where
terrorists were holed up.
DoD officials praised the Pakistanis for their work. "Pakistan has been a
tremendous ally in the war against terror," said Army Lt. Col. Jim Cassella, a
Pentagon spokesman. "They have captured or killed more al Qaeda than any other
Speaking on background, U.S. officials said the United States has been working
with Pakistani officials economically to strengthen the country, and militarily
to strengthen the army's capabilities. "They are well-prepared for operations
in that mountainous environment," a U.S. official said.
U.S. officials would not say whether they have confirmation that Zawahiri is,
indeed, surrounded, and stressed that while his death or capture would further
weaken al Qaeda, it would not be a fatal blow to the terror organization.