New Generation of Leaders Is Emerging for Al Qaeda

By DAVID JOHNSTON and DAVID E. SANGER

The New York Times

August 10, 2004

WASHINGTON, Aug. 9 - A new portrait of Al Qaeda's inner workings is emerging from the cache of information seized last month in Pakistan, as investigators begin to identify a new generation of operatives who appear to be filling the vacuum created when leaders were killed or captured, senior intelligence officials said Monday.

Using computer records, e-mail addresses and documents seized after the arrest of Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan last month in Pakistan, intelligence analysts say they are finding that Al Qaeda's upper ranks are being filled by lower-ranking members and more recent recruits.

"They're a little bit of both,'' one official said, describing Al Qaeda's new midlevel structure. "Some who have been around and some who have stepped up. They're reaching for their bench.''

While the findings may result in a significant intelligence coup for the Bush administration and its allies in Britain, they also create a far more complex picture of Al Qaeda's status than Mr. Bush presents on the campaign trail. For the past several months, the president has claimed that much of Al Qaeda's leadership has been killed or captured; the new evidence suggests that the organization is regenerating and bringing in new blood.

The new picture emerged from interviews with two officials who have been briefed on some of the details of the intelligence and analytical conclusions drawn from the information on computers seized after Mr. Khan's arrest. But they did not identify the more senior Qaeda leaders, and they said it was not yet clear to what extent Osama bin Laden still exercised control over the organization, either directly or through his chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Officials say they still do not have a clear picture of the midlevel structure that exists between Mr. Khan, who appeared to be responsible for communications but not operations, and the upper echelons of Al Qaeda.

The new evidence suggests that Al Qaeda has retained some elements of its previous centralized command and communications structure, using computer experts like Mr. Khan to relay encrypted messages and directions from leaders to subordinates in countries like Britain, Turkey and Nigeria.

In the past, officials had a different view of Al Qaeda. After the American-led war in Afghanistan, most American counterterrorism analysts believed that the group had been dispersed and had been trying to re-form in a loosely affiliated collection of extremist groups.

It appears that Al Qaeda is more resilient than was previously understood and has sought to find replacements for operational commanders like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and Walid Muhammad Salih bin Attash, known as Khallad, all of whom have been captured.

Mr. bin Laden and Mr. Zawahiri are believed to be in hiding in the region along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In July, when American officials announced that Al Qaeda intended to strike inside the United States this year, they said that they believed Mr. bin Laden was directing the threats.

The names of senior members of the terror network were not discussed by the intelligence officials, in part, they said, to avoid compromising efforts to kill or capture them. "They are in Pakistan or the region,'' said one official, who also said that the Pakistani government was being "quite helpful'' in helping identify them. That is a significant change from last year, but the attitude of Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, appeared to change after he survived two assassination attempts that are now believed to have been aided by Qaeda sympathizers. "That focused his mind on the issue,'' one American said.

The Khan computer files also led to the arrest of 11 Qaeda followers last week in Britain. They are described by officials as young, alienated Arab men with extreme anti-American views, much like many of Mr. bin Laden's foot soldiers and many of the 19 men who took part in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

One key figure among the men arrested in Britain is Abu Issa al-Hindi, who is believed to have supervised the surveillance of financial institutions in New York, New Jersey and Washington. He appears to represent what authorities said was a different kind of Qaeda recruit, a convert to Islam who did not appear to have been trained in Mr. bin Laden's Afghanistan camps.

The arrest of Mr. Khan continued to be debated on Monday in the capital. A Democratic senator, Charles E. Schumer of New York, asked the White House to explain how the identity of the communications expert arrested in Pakistan last month became publicly known.

Mr. Schumer said in a letter to Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, that the disclosure of Mr. Khan's capture may have complicated efforts to combat terror.

The apprehension of Mr. Khan led authorities in Pakistan to computers that provided a wealth of information about Al Qaeda operations, including the surveillance of the financial institutions. It remains unclear whether he was cooperating with Pakistani intelligence at the time of his arrest or had previously provided Islamabad with information about Al Qaeda.

"I believe that openness in government is generally the best policy,'' Mr. Schumer wrote. "But the important exception should be anything that compromises national security. The statements of the British and Pakistani officials indicate that such a compromise may have occurred.''

There have been reports of Pakistani officials complaining that public statements in the United States about Mr. Khan's arrest gave his Qaeda contacts notice that they may be under surveillance.

Mr. bin Laden's precise role in the leadership of his organization remains murky. After the Sept. 11 attacks he did not appear to take an active leadership role in formulating a specific plan, as he had in the Sept. 11 plot, administration officials have said. At times he has appeared to be struggling to maintain his primacy as the leader of the network through messages exhorting his followers to carry out operations against American targets.

But in recent months, there has been evidence leading some analysts to conclude that Mr. bin Laden may have been able to maintain greater control over planning for attacks.