Bin Laden's Deputy Surrounded?

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Bin Laden's aide Ayman al-Zawahri

Reports out of Islamabad suggest that the Pakistani military has cornered a top al-Qaeda leader in the rugged northwestern province of Waziristan — and some government officials are saying unofficially that the man their forces have surrounded may be Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad leader who has operated as Osama bin Laden's Number 2 and is widely viewed as the intellectual architect of al-Qaeda's global strategy. TIME Islamabad Bureau Chief Tim McGirk spoke with from the Pakistani capital about this breaking story: What's the latest you're hearing about the possibility that Pakistani forces may be about to snare a top al-Qaeda leader?

Tim McGirk: President Musharraf came out earlier Thursday and said he believes Pakistani forces have a "high-value" al-Qaeda leader surrounded. That's the reason Pakistani authorities believe that the 8,000 troops currently hunting al-Qaeda fugitives in south Waziristan are encountering such ferocious resistance. Authorities believe that those who are fighting against the Pakistani military in the area are defending someone of considerable importance, and also that this person may have been wounded, which would explain why they're fighting rather than running into the mountains, the way they usually do. So is the intensity of the fighting the only reason they believe they've netted a big fish?

McGirk: There may be other reasons that we don't know about. Unofficially, intelligence people and government officials in the region's capital, Wana, are saying they think it's Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The government in Islamabad had been negotiating for two weeks or longer to try and persuade the Waziri tribal elders to hand over the three main tribesmen who are believed to have been sheltering al-Qaeda operatives. The tribes are heavily armed, and they're traditionally allowed considerable autonomy from the central government in running their own affairs. In response to the government's efforts, the tribal elders hemmed and hawed, and then refused to hand over the wanted men — who, in the meantime, had fled. At that point, an informant walked into the military garrison in Wana and said we think we know where these men are hiding, and they're not heavily armed. So, 400 Frontier Corpsmen set out in 13 trucks and 3 armored personnel carriers, but they were ambushed along the way by hundreds of Waziri tribesmen. It was a complete rout. The tribesmen killed about 22 government troops, and are holding hostage at least another 16. And many of the government troops escaped by running to different houses and pleading for mercy, asking to be given civilian clothes and then slipping away. Basically, they deserted.

After that incident, President Musharraf decided to break off talks with the tribes. This morning the army went in with loudspeakers and warned residents to evacuate seven villages around Wana. Thousands of families fled. Then the army started shelling these villages with heavy artillery, and firing rockets from helicopter gunships and planes. Even then, when the ground troops went in to mop up, they encountered ferocious resistance. The fighting has been going on pretty much into the evening. What would explain the ferocity with which Pakistani tribesmen appear ready to die to defend Arab terrorists?

McGirk: It may sound mediaeval, but Pashtun culture places a higher value on honor than on life. Al-Qaeda operatives in the tribal areas are believed to be living with local families, and some — particularly Uzbeks and Chechens — are said to have married into local families. In the eyes of the tribesmen, for government troops to go in and destroy the houses and force the families off ancestral land is a big no-no. What we're seeing is that because of harsh government action, a lot of tribesmen who couldn't care less about giving sanctuary to Zawahiri or anyone else are feeling that their honor is now at stake, and that they have to defend it. What impact is this hunt for al-Qaeda having on Pakistani society?

McGirk: It could have a huge impact if this resistance spreads to other tribes. And we're seeing the first inkling that this may be happening already. An army convoy rushing reinforcements to the battle in south Waziristan was attacked yesterday, in a different tribal area. And in north Waziristan, there was a raid on an army outpost today, in which a major was killed. President Musharraf is taking a huge risk here. These tribes are well-armed and they could make common cause with the Taliban and other anti-coalition elements in Afghanistan. Also, many of the soldiers in the Pakistani military are Pashtuns from the tribal areas, and they're deeply upset about being sent in against their own people. Even in the cities, there's a lot of support for al-Qaeda. One newspaper today published a poll that found 65 percent of Pakistanis said they sympathized with Osama bin Laden. I don't know how accurate that is, but bin Laden is certainly a lot more popular in Pakistan than President Bush. Secretary of State Colin Powell was in Pakistan today, presumably to hold President Musharraf's hand through a tough period. Is Pakistan being rewarded for its cooperation?

McGirk: Yes, although in the first instance that reward takes the form of the U.S. refraining from punishing Pakistan over the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology. Where the U.S. might have applied sanctions and cut off military aid over this issue, instead Pakistan has now been declared a major U.S. ally. If they do have Ayman al-Zawahiri, how far can bin Laden be?

McGirk: I think he's very close. After all, in every al-Qaeda video, he's right by bin Laden's side. Even if they are hiding in different places, Zawahiri will have better idea than anyone else where bin Laden may be.