Al-Qaeda: Alive and Starting to Kick Again

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Is al-Qaeda on the rebound? Evidence is starting to mount that it is. U.S. officials believe that audiotaped statements purported to be from Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, broadcast recently on al-Jazeera, are authentic. Although the bin Laden tape is not thought to be new, U.S. counterterrorism officials told Time that al-Zawahiri's statement—which warned of imminent attacks on the U.S. and its allies—was probably recorded in the past two months. "This is a way of telling people that al-Zawahiri isn't dead," says a White House aide. The U.S. believes the two may still be hiding in Pakistan's northwestern tribal areas. There have also been unconfirmed reports that al-Zawahiri somehow fled to Chittagong, Bangladesh, in March. A source in the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, a Bangladeshi military intelligence agency, told Time last week that bin Laden's deputy left Bangladesh this summer, crossing its eastern border into neighboring Myanmar with the help of the country's Muslim rebels. U.S. intelligence, however, has no evidence that the report is true.

Though significantly degraded by the U.S. military campaign and the global antiterrorist dragnet, bin Laden's network seems intent on proving that it is still in business and is casting about for new targets. French and U.S. officials believe the Oct. 6 explosion that ripped a large hole in a French oil tanker off the Yemen coast, killing a Bulgarian crew member, was the work of terrorists linked to al-Qaeda. The blast closely resembled al-Qaeda's October 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden. Two days after the tanker blast, members of a Kuwaiti terrorist cell that had "pledged allegiance" to bin Laden staged an apparent suicide ambush on U.S. Marines on the Kuwaiti island of Failaka. After killing one service member, the Kuwaitis were shot to death by U.S. forces. The attackers had reportedly trained in terror camps in Afghanistan. Arab officials say that al-Qaeda leaders, in communications with rank and file, are using the potential campaign against Iraq to rally for a new round of violence. With the Pentagon planning to move as many as 250,000 troops into the region in advance of a possible invasion, some experts believe that al-Qaeda will call for a renewed jihad against the U.S. presence in and around the Arabian Peninsula—one of the original objects of bin Laden's wrath.

Though al-Qaeda may not be capable of mounting another Sept. 11-style attack in the near future, the group is now more dispersed and thus more difficult to track. "They can operate in ones and twos," says a White House aide. German authorities nabbed one last week, arresting Abdelghani Mzoudi, 29, a Moroccan suspected of ties to the Hamburg cell of Sept. 11 ringleader Mohamed Atta. Meanwhile, according to the New York Times, U.S. intelligence officials are investigating reports that Ramzi Binalshibh, a Qaeda operative arrested in Pakistan last month, may have been the head of a fifth hijacking team, assigned to crash an airliner into the White House. If so, it's likely that at least some of his teammates are still on the loose.

—Reported by Scott MacLeod and Amany Radwan/Cairo, Alex Perry/Chittagong and Douglas Waller/Washington