Al Qaeda Chief Ayman al-Zawahiri on Alert

A year after Osama bin Laden’s death, al Qaeda is straining to keep his successor safe—even as pressure mounts to pull off a fresh act of terror.

04.28.12 10:00 PM ET

Since the killing of Osama bin Laden a year ago, al Qaeda and Taliban militants have been especially concerned for the safety of his successor, former Egyptian army surgeon Ayman al-Zawahiri, Newsweek reports in this week’s issue.

Zawahiri’s safety was the main subject of conversation when several senior Qaeda operatives and a handful of other militants sat down for a dinner meeting in North Waziristan six months ago, according to a well-placed Taliban source. Over a meal of mutton kebab, the men discussed how Zawahiri’s handlers and tribal hosts had strongly advised him “to move to a new place,” to stop using electronic devices, to limit his exposure by issuing fewer audio and video propaganda tapes, and to exercise extreme caution in dealing with couriers.

“We are hoping he can avoid being captured by the U.S. for at least 10 more years,” the Taliban source says.

The Newsweek article, by Sami Yousafzai, Ron Moreau, and Daniel Klaidman, reports that one of the Qaeda operatives at the dinner, which took place outside the town of Miran Shah in northwest Pakistan, asked if the Afghan Taliban would consider harboring Zawahiri if he decided to hide in Afghanistan. According to the Taliban source, the Afghan was non-committal.

Zawahiri is under increasing pressure now to carry out a fresh act of headline-grabbing terror. He “needs to terrorize in order to really cement his position as bin Laden’s long-term successor,” says Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official who has advised the Obama administration. Yet the new Qaeda chief faces a dilemma: the more involved he gets in planning and propaganda, the more exposed he becomes.

American special operators and CIA agents face their own dilemma: Pakistan’s political and military leaders, furious that Washington kept them in the dark about the bin Laden raid and other missions, have forbidden the United States from conducting drone strikes in their territory. American forces are respecting Pakistani wishes—for now—in an effort to “lower the temperature,” says one senior administration official. Eventually, American officials tell Newsweek, offensive drone operations will restart with or without Pakistan’s approval.

Distrust runs deep between the two countries. Newsweek has learned that shortly after the Navy SEALs stormed bin Laden’s hideout, federal prosecutors were laying the groundwork to issue sealed indictments against members of the Pakistani government or anyone else they believed had aided bin Laden. The charge, according to two law-enforcement sources, would have been “harboring a fugitive terrorist.”

The SEALs carted away boxes of computers, hard drives, thumb drives, DVDs, and thousands of documents. It was the greatest intel haul on al Qaeda’s operations and habits since 9/11: 3.4 terabytes of information, according to an intelligence source. No smoking gun on Pakistani complicity was found, however, and no indictments were returned.

That did little to erase suspicions. “There are indicators that some elements of the Pakistani government may be protecting Zawahiri,” says a U.S. intel official who did not want to be named discussing sensitive information. “We have reports that he’s been hanging out in Karachi for brief periods, and we just don’t think he’s going to be doing that without a lot of people knowing about it.”

Read the full Newsweek story on newsstands Monday and on The Daily Beast Sunday.