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Next wave of Al Qaeda leadership

As the group's Arab core is captured or killed, a new generation of Pakistanis fills the void

By Owais TohidCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 5, 2004


After leaving university, Atta-ur Rehman traded his jeans and T-shirts for a beard and cap, his civil-service aspirations for a martyr's spot in heaven.

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He used to spend his time playing cricket, but he is now in a Pakistani jail facing a death sentence on terrorism charges. Mr. Rehman, along with nine other "comrades," is charged with carrying out a deadly June attack against a senior Pakistani Army general in Karachi. The general escaped narrowly but 10 people, including seven soldiers, were killed.

Rehman's circle call themselves Jundullah (God's Army) and have close ties to Al Qaeda. Most are young, educated men, whom Rehman allegedly sent to training camps in Pakistan's remote tribal areas.

Rehman doesn't fit the mold of the typical Al Qaeda leader. Traditionally, most were Arabs who gained status by resisting the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Younger, educated recruits tapped for suicide missions like 9/11 typically came from Middle Eastern countries with long histories of pan-Islamic resistance. What sets this new breed apart is that they are joining from places like Pakistan, where the focus has been on regional grievances, like independence for the disputed area of Kashmir. But as the Al Qaeda leadership ranks begin to thin, men like Rehman are starting to climb the ladder.

"It is a new generation of Al Qaeda," says Riffat Hussain, a leading defense and security analyst based in Islamabad, Pakistan. "These are new converts to Al Qaeda. They may have no links with Al Qaeda in the past, but now they are willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause as they feel Al Qaeda is the name of defiance to the West. They are young and angry, and their number has swelled in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq."

A voice on an audiotape last weekend, purported to be that of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's deputy, called on young Muslims to continue the global fight even if Al Qaeda's leaders are killed or captured. It is people like Rehman and his colleagues that Mr. Zawahiri could have been talking about.

Police here suggest that Pakistan's newly organized jihadis and educated radicals might number in the hundreds. Police say that more than 600 suspected Al Qaeda militants have been rounded up by security forces over the past three years.

Two types of recruits

Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan, the 28-year-old known as Al Qaeda's computer man, is among them. A middle-class engineering graduate, Mr. Khan is believed to have played an important role in planning terrorist attacks in the US and Britain before he was arrested in Lahore on July 13.

Khan visited Afghanistan during his student days and later became a bridge between Al Qaeda leaders and their operatives. He helped Al Qaeda operatives send encrypted messages over the Internet.

"His journey to Al Qaeda started from outside a mosque in his Karachi neighborhood where he met extremists," says his old friend named Khurram. He watched his friend's transformation but "never imagined that he would become such a man."

Under interrogation, Khan exposed part of Al Qaeda's intricate web of contacts in Pakistan, Britain, and the US. The information led to the July arrest of Tanzanian terror suspect Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani and a top Al Qaeda operative, Musa el Hindi, in Britain.