ISLAMABAD, (Reuters) – The U.S. ambassador to Pakistan said on Monday he did not believe Osama bin Laden was still in operational control of al Qaeda and the militant network was in "serious trouble".
Speaking to reporters in Islamabad, Ryan Crocker contradicted comments in a video interview posted on an Islamist Web site last week in which al Qaeda”s deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, said bin Laden was still leading the group”s war on the West.
"I think that Osama bin Laden is no longer the operational head of al Qaeda, because he is hiding deep inside the mountains and he doesn”t have contact with the al Qaeda people," Crocker said.
Referring to al-Zawahri, he added: "I don”t know if Zawahri is heading al Qaeda or not; what I do know is that al Qaeda is in serious trouble these days."
U.S. officials have long said they believe bin Laden, mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, has been hiding along the rugged Pakistan-Afghanistan border since U.S. forces failed to capture him after invading Afghanistan late 2001.
Asked about Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf”s announcement that a senior al Qaeda figure, Abu Hamza Rabia, was killed in a tribal region bordering Afghanistan this month, Crocker echoed comments by other U.S. officials by saying: "I don”t know what happened, but if President Musharraf is saying he is dead, we must trust what President Musharraf is saying."
Pakistani authorities say Rabia was killed when bomb-making material stored at his hideout was detonated accidentally and comrades took away his body.
Villagers in the area said the blast was caused by a missile fired from an unidentified aircraft, possibly a U.S. drone.
Last week unidentified gunmen kidnapped a journalist who had reported that Rabia was killed by a U.S. missile and who took photographs of what villagers said were fragments of the weapon.
Crocker also said the United States expressed concern that Pakistan had allowed a prominent anti-American militant group to take a role in providing relief to survivors of the catastrophic earthquake that hit northern Pakistan on Oct. 8.
"This is not good. Jamat-ud-Daawa is the new name of Lashkar-e-Taiba. I think that these groups should not be allowed to join the relief operations. The government of Pakistan should make use of other NGOs. The government of Pakistan is aware of our concerns in this context."
Lashkar-e-Taiba was outlawed in 2002 after being blamed for a bloody attack on the Indian parliament which brought nuclear-armed India and Pakistan close to a fourth war.
It has since reemerged under the name Jamat-ud-Daawa and has been carrying out high-profile relief work in earthquake-devastated Pakistani Kashmir. The United States has also been playing a major role in the rescue effort.
Jamat-ud-Daawa is on the Pakistan government”s watchlist of terrorist organisations but is not formally banned.