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U.S. Confirms Extensive Search For bin Laden’s Heir Apparent

By Josh Meyer
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- washington

As the hunt for al-Qaida leaders expands beyond Afghanistan, authorities confirmed Tuesday that they are pursuing one man as intensely as Osama bin Laden himself -- an elusive Palestinian who they believe has been entrusted with keeping the terrorist organization’s global network of cells alive and operational.

Authorities are also aggressively pursuing the theory that Abu Zubeida, whose real name is Zain al-Abidin Muhammad Husain, is the “operational link” connecting bin Laden and others who conceived the Sept. 11 terror attacks with the 19 hijackers who carried them out.

Zubeida, thought to be about 30 years old, could well be at bin Laden’s side as he tries to elude a global dragnet. But unlike bin Laden and aide Ayman Zawahiri, whose movements are limited by their high profiles, authorities fear that Zubeida also may have slipped out of Afghanistan and into Pakistan or almost anywhere else to activate new plots and to regroup al-Qaida forces.

Zubeida’s role makes him a higher priority than even Zawahiri, who authorities say is more of a theoretician. Since the death last month of Muhammad Atef, Zubeida is also believed to have taken on the role of al-Qaida’s chief military strategist, according to U.S. officials and counterterrorism experts.

Zubeida has well-established personal ties to many of the al-Qaida cell leaders and soldiers in far-flung posts, whom he cultivated as the group’s longtime liaison to the worldwide terrorist community and overseer of camps in Afghanistan. Those al-Qaida supporters, officials said, could provide Zubeida with safe harbor, financial and logistical support and manpower needed to keep al-Qaida going, even if bin Laden is killed or apprehended.

Authorities cite a copy of al-Qaida’s plan for succession of power, recently smuggled out of Afghanistan, which states that certain key leaders must flee as opposing forces are closing in, to ensure that the terrorist network has the leadership it needs to live and fight another day.

“Zubeida is the director of external affairs for al-Qaida,” said one Bush official who confirmed the intensive manhunt for Zubeida. “As part of that, he ran the camp infrastructure, he brought (terrorists) in, trained them and got them back to their country of origin or the country al-Qaida wanted to place them in.”

“He is a very important cog in the machinery and certainly ... after bin Laden is gone, would be someone who would take over,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.