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Al-Qa'eda divided over drive to oust Musharraf

London Telegraph | July 29, 2007
Philip Sherwell and Massoud Ansari

A deep split has emerged within al-Qa'eda over the wisdom of the terror network's drive to overthrow and kill Pakistan's president Pervez Musharraf, according to radical Pakistani Islamists allied to the terror network.

Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has ordered the series of retaliatory attacks on Pakistani targets that have followed the storming of the Red Mosque, an extremist stronghold in Islamabad, by Gen Musharraf's troops this month.

In the latest atrocity, 13 people, mostly policemen, were killed and 50 injured in a suicide attack near the mosque on Friday as the authorities tried to re-open the compound. Nearly 200 people have now died in revenge attacks and bombings.

But some senior figures within al-Qa'eda are alarmed that al-Zawahiri's mission to topple and kill Gen Musharraf will provoke a Pakistani military backlash that could jeopardise their safe havens in the mountainous tribal areas on the Afghan border.

A rival so-called "Libyan faction" led by Abu Yahya al-Libi, who escaped from the US Bagram base near Kabul in 2005, apparently suspects that al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian-born doctor, is trying to position himself as bin Laden's heir presumptive with his personal crusade. Bin Laden himself is believed to be in hiding, fearful of his whereabouts being discovered.

US intelligence operatives closely involved in the hunt for bin Laden told The Sunday Telegraph that they had received reports of al-Qa'eda rifts from senior sources within the Pakistani jihadist community.

The US officials believe al-Zawahiri is running anti-Musharraf operations without consulting other leaders, hoping to foment a revolt that will result in an Islamic regime taking control of Pakistan's nuclear weapons. They are investigating reports of other factions which want to consolidate their operating bases on the Pakistan-Afghan border.

US intelligence believes that the feud has developed in a power vacuum in al-Qa'eda's high command. Bin Laden rarely holds face-to-face meetings with senior lieutenants for security reasons, has only issued occasional instructions to his followers, and may be seriously ill.

Al-Zawahiri, by contrast, has fired off a flurry off video and audio messages, including three in two weeks earlier this month. In the final one, issued two days after the Red Mosque shoot-out, he exhorted Pakistanis to "revolt", warning that otherwise "Musharraf will annihilate you".

"There seems to be a debate within al-Qa'eda about whether to accelerate the conflict in an effort to destabilise Pakistan or continue the attritional battle," said John Arquilla, an intelligence analyst at the US Naval Postgraduate School.

"Pakistan is the great strategic prize if they could install a friendly regime in possession of nuclear weapons. Pakistan is central to the war on terror in a way Iraq is not."

The high stakes were brought home by a new US National Intelligence Estimate this month. The report concluded that a resurgent al-Qa'eda, now based in Pakistan's lawless tribal belt, has regained the same strength and organisation as before the September 11, 2001 attacks that prompted the US assault that drove it from Afghanistan.

The report prompted a fresh round of debate in Washington about whether to launch military strikes inside Pakistan. Fran Townsend, the White House homeland security advisor, provoked outrage in Pakistan when she said the US would consider using military force inside the country if it identified key al-Qa'eda targets there.

In Islamabad in his first overseas trip as Foreign Secretary, David Milliband signalled a different tone from Washington last week, emphasising that a military solution alone would not quash the insurgency in the tribal areas.

US intelligence has repeated warnings to the White House that it is probably only a matter of time before al-Qa'eda stages another major attack inside the US, organised from its Pakistani strongholds. A significant faction inside the CIA wants the US to launch attacks within Pakistan to strike at al-Qa'eda now, without authorisation from Gen Musharraf.

But President George W Bush has made clear that he will not allow any such attack, which he fears would undermine the Pakistani leader and could bring him down.

The US last week handed intelligence dossiers to Islamabad identifying locations used by al-Qa'eda and Taliban militants as training camps and hide-outs.

Al-Qa'eda and its local Taliban allies made major inroads in the region after Gen Musharraf signed a peace deal with local tribal leaders last September. However, that ceasefire has recently collapsed.

Gen Musharraf earned some plaudits in Washington for ordering his troops into action against the militants in the Red Mosque. But he has made no public appearances during the revenge attacks and he was politically damaged by a court decision to reinstate the Supreme Court chief justice whom he had suspended.

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