With Osama bin Laden either dead or on the run, half-a-dozen previously little-known al-Qa'ida operatives have become the terror network's key organisers, intelligence officers say. They may have had important roles in the recent bomb attack in Bali that killed almost 200 people.
American and European intelligence services believe the men have taken a central role in recent months to co-ordinate the organisation's financial and military operations. The emergence of the men is cited as evidence of al-Qa'ida's ability to regroup and develop new leadership in response to the US war on terror and the military operation in Afghanistan, which robbed them of a safe haven.
One European intelligence official told The Washington Post: "They have been there from the beginning but were in the shadows, not the most visible people. But they have their skills and in war you need your best commanders."
Three of them are Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian named as al-Qa'ida's military commander and believed to be in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area; Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, the financial officer, also Egyptian and in the same area, and Riduan Isamuddin, the south-east regional commander, believed to operate in Malaysia or Indonesia. Intelligence officials also highlighted the increasing roles of Tawfiq bin Atash, Rahim al-Nashri and Abu Musab Zarqawi, alleged operational planners in al-Qa'ida attacks, including 11 September, the bombing of the USS Cole and the East African embassy atrocities.
Ayman Zawahiri, an Egyptian, was said to be Mr bin Laden's deputy. But he is on the run and officials believe he has difficulty exerting influence. They are also hunting Sheikh Mohammed, a Kuwaiti of Palestinian origin believed to be one of the 11 September planners. He is said to have been involved in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centre and the bombing of a synagogue in Tunisia last April.
Last month a close associate, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, was arrested in Pakistan after the pair gave an interview to the al-Jazeera television network. Mr bin al-Shibh is being interrogated in US custody and Mr Mohammed has vanished.
A CIA report this week said: "[Al-Qa'ida] tries to raise funds from mosques, Islamic charities and individuals – rich and poor – through much of the world. This has helped corroborate our view that al-Qa'ida relies on a steady stream of contributions."
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