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American Forces Press Service

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 capture.

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 country."

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.

Related Web Sites:
FBI's "Most Wanted Terrorist" Poster for Ayman al-Zawahiri
State Department Background Notes on Pakistan

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Updated: 18 Mar 2004
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