WASHINGTON - An elusive Palestinian who travels the world using false passports and multiple aliases has emerged as the new chief of operations for al-Qaida and is believed to be organizing remnants of the terrorist network for new attacks against the United States, U.S. officials said.
The 30-year-old, Abu Zubaydah, has been linked directly to the planning of the Sept. 11 strikes in the United States. He has also been tied to plans for a wave of terror attacks in Europe that were supposed to take place last year, including a plot to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, sometime after Sept. 11.
While the European attacks were thwarted by the arrest of several of the plotters, U.S. investigators said they were convinced that Zubaydah was now trying to activate so-called sleeper cells of al-Qaida for new strikes on the United States and its allies.
Investigators say that Zubaydah is especially dangerous and that they are eager to apprehend him because he is one of the few al-Qaida leaders believed to know the identities of the thousands of recruits who passed through the network's training camps in Afghanistan. They are now back in their home countries, or elsewhere, awaiting instructions.
"He's as dangerous as anyone we are looking for, including [Osama] bin Laden," said a senior law enforcement official. "But it's scary how little we know."
U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials say they are convinced that Zubaydah has taken over the post of al-Qaida's chief of military operations from Muhammad Atef, who is believed to have been killed in a U.S. bombing raid in Afghanistan in November.
Atef, a Egyptian, was the highest-ranking al-Qaida leader reported to have died as a result of the U.S. military action.
Zubaydah has been one of bin Laden's top lieutenants since the late 1990s, and U.S. intelligence agencies believe that he was at bin Laden's side in Afghanistan in the first weeks after Sept. 11.
His whereabouts today are unknown, although U.S. officials say there is fragmentary evidence that he escaped to Pakistan.
U.S. officials said it would have been far easier for Zubaydah to escape after Sept. 11 than for other al-Qaida leaders, given his careful efforts over the years to elude cameras and cover up details about his identity. U.S. intelligence agencies are reported to have recent photographs, never made public, of the man they believe is Zubaydah.