Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency has been sheltering al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in the port city of Karachi after he survived a drone strike in a remote area near the Afghan border last year, according to a media report.
Egyptian-born Zawahiri, a trained surgeon, has been protected by the ISI since US forces evicted al-Qaeda from Afghanistan in late 2001, Newsweek quoted several authoritative sources as saying.
His “most likely location”, the sources said, is Karachi. “Like everything about his location, there’s no positive proof,” said Bruce Riedel, a 30-year CIA veteran who was the top adviser on South Asia and the Middle East for the past four US presidents.
“There are pretty good indications, including some of the material found in Abbottabad” (the Pakistani garrison town where Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011), “that point in that direction,” Riedel said.
“This would be a logical place to hide out, where he would feel pretty comfortable that the Americans can’t come and get him.”
In the first week of January 2016, the Obama administration carried out a drone strike to target Zawahiri in the remote Shawal Valley in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, multiple sources told Newsweek.
An unnamed senior militant leader in the region said Zawahiri survived but five of his security guards were killed. “The drone hit next to the room where Dr Zawahiri was staying,” the militant leader said. “The shared wall collapsed, and debris from the explosion showered on him and broke his glasses, but luckily he was safe.”
Zawahiri had “left the targeted room to sleep just 10 minutes ahead of the missile that hit that room”, the militant leader said.
The militant leader further said Zawahiri had vowed that he would never be captured alive. He has a “desperate last wish” for one last big attack against America “before folding his eyes”, the militant leader added.
Zawahiri had been in Pakistan’s lawless semi-autonomous tribal region since 2005, according to the forthcoming book, The Exile: The Stunning Inside Story of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda in Flight, by British journalists Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy.
“Married to a local Pashtun girl, (Zawahiri) had been given a new home, a large mud-brick compound up in the hills” at Damadola, according to the book.
Riedel said Karachi was an ideal hideout for Zawahiri because it would be a “very hard” place for the US to conduct the kind of commando raid that killed bin Laden on May 2, 2011.
Unlike the sleepy garrison town of Abbottabad, the city of 26 million has a major nuclear complex and hosts naval and air bases, from where forces could quickly be scrambled to intercept foreign raiders.
“If (Zawahiri) was in someplace along the border with Afghanistan, I think the temptation would be enormous to go after him,” said Riedel, who now heads the Brooking Institution’s Intelligence Project in Washington. “But in Karachi, that would be stunning and very difficult.”
In July 2015, Zawahiri was in Shawal Valley, often with one of his three wives and his top assistant, Saif al-Adel, a former bomb expert and colonel in the Egyptian special forces, according to the militant leader.
An Afghan Taliban leader said Zawahiri, now 66 and frail, had survived several drone strikes since 2001 but is “worried and sad about the overall situation of Islamic groups”.
One of the Taliban’s former ministers said Zawahiri and al-Qaeda are “no longer welcome” in areas controlled by the Taliban because the group is engaged in peace negotiations with the Afghan government and doesn’t want to be seen as “a threat to world peace”.
Closed out of the tribal areas, Zawahiri was “moved to Karachi under direction of ‘the black leg’”, the Afghan Taliban’s code name for the ISI, according to the Taliban leader. Zawahiri may have taken al-Adel, indicted in the US in connection with the 1998 bombing of the American embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, with him.
A former top Pakistani official who maintains close ties with the Islamabad government would confirm only that Zawahiri is “in a large Pakistani city”.
Karachi “makes sense” as a sanctuarythe official said, given its sympathies for militant Islam, congested 19th-century streets and large military presence. The official said he was “100 percent” sure bin Laden’s 26-year-old son, Hamza, a rising power in al-Qaeda, is also in Pakistan under ISI protection.
The report said that if Pakistani political leaders “cannot, or refuse to, bring the ISI under control and turn over al-Zawahiri, Hamza bin Laden and other militant figures, Washington could go nuclear on Pakistan—diplomatically speaking—by declaring it a state sponsor of terrorism”.
American experts believe al-Qaeda remains a “potent force with the ambition and capability to launch another spectacular attack” against the US. Riedel pointed to a 2014 plot by al-Qaeda to place sympathisers on a Pakistani frigate, hijack it and use it to “attack American naval ships in the Indian Ocean, or maybe Indian ships, or maybe both”.
An unnamed Western diplomat said al-Qaeda remains interested a carrying out attacks “related to airlines”.