AL QAIDA -- U.S. counter-terrorism officials are seeking one of Osama bin Laden's most senior lieutenants, believed to be organizing al Qaida resources to carry out attacks on American targets.
He is a 30-year-old Palestinian known as Abu Zubaydah who appears to have escaped from Afghanistan to Pakistan during the U.S. campaign against the Taliban and al Qaida. His present whereabouts are unknown.
According to American officials, he was involved in planning the Sept. 11 attacks and subsequent plots to blow up the U.S. embassies in Paris and in Sarajevo, Bosnia, last year. European security officials foiled both plots.
Abu Zubaydah was the fourth ranking official of al Qaida at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks. Only Ayman Zawahiri, an Egyptian physician and bin Laden's intellectual mentor, and Muhammad Atef, believed killed in a U.S. bombing raid, outranked him in the terrorist network headed by bin Laden. The present whereabouts of bin Laden and Zawahiri is unknown.
Abu Zubaydah has emerged as Atef's successor as chief of operations for al Qaida. The organization was disrupted and driven out of Afghanistan where it held a privileged position, becoming the paymaster of the Taliban.
However, many, perhaps thousands of al Qaida members escaped through the porous borders with Pakistan and Iran. They would have found sympathizers in both countries to facilitate their disappearance from view and their travel onward to their homelands or refuge elsewhere.
Earlier this month, news reports cited U.S. and Israeli officials as saying top al Qaida operatives had been spotted in Gaza during January and that the network might be seeking to establish a base in the Gaza strip.
U.S. counter-terrorism officials want to lay their hands on Abu Zubaydah because they believe he knows the identities of thousands of Islamist terrorists who passed through al Qaida training camps in Afghanistan.
Last July, Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian who confessed to being a terrorist, testified at the New York trial of another plotter that he had met Zubaydah in Pakistan in 1998 while on his way for training in al Qaida camps in Afghanistan. Ressam was earlier convicted of plotting to blow up Los Angeles airport on New Year's Eve 1999.
It was this millennium plot and a simultaneous one to blow up tourist sites in Jordan that first brought Abu Zubaydah to the attention of U.S. officials. In Jordan he was tried in absentia and sentenced to death.
Ressam described Abu Zubaydah as being responsible for deciding who was accepted and who rejected for training as well as making travel arrangements for al Qaida fighters.
Abu Zubaydah has taken care to conceal his appearance and identity when traveling abroad. But U.S. officials describe him as tall and slender with a light complexion.
He is thought to have been born to a Palestinian family resident in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and may have also lived in the Gaza Strip. He appears never to have been drawn to Palestinian nationalism but instead to the cause of establishing a form of severe Islamic rule, like that of Saudi Arabia, throughout the Muslim world.
ADMINISTRATION GIVES PAKISTAN TOKEN OF ITS ESTEEM
UNITED STATES -- The Bush administration Wednesday gave Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf a valuable token of esteem -- the reactivation of a long-suspended joint advisory body on military aid for Pakistan.
The Department of Defense gesture underscored President Bush's pledge to stand by Pakistan and not abandon this key U.S. ally in the war against terrorism when the fighting ends in Central Asia.
The Defense Consultative Group, headed by Undersecretary of State Douglas Feith, will assess Pakistan's military aid requests and make recommendations to help strengthen bilateral military ties, virtually in abeyance since 1990, when the U.S. suspended arms sales to Pakistan over its development of nuclear weapons.
The United States, Bush said, will work with Pakistan to continue the fight against terrorism, strengthen trade, tackle its staggering foreign debt problem -- a $38 billion loan, the interest on which absorbs more than 50 percent of the country's earnings -- and help "develop opportunities for all."
Financial aid to Pakistan had been increased in the 2003 budget, Bush said.
Musharraf defied critics and sometimes-violent protests when he dropped Pakistan's support for the Taliban and turned against it and the al Qaida terrorist network. More recently, he has banned Islamist organizations and declared his intention to keep Islamists from using religious schools and mosques for indoctrination.
Bush Wednesday said Pakistan's support -- which included allowing U.S. military use of its air bases and air space, "was critical in our success so far in routing out the Taliban and al Qaida network."
Bush and Musharraf said they discussed the thorny issue of Kashmir and Pakistan-India relations. Musharraf said he "was committed to a peaceful resolution to the Kashmir dispute in accordance with the (Kashmiri) people's wishes" and called on India to immediately withdraw troops from border positions and enter into dialogue with Pakistan.
Musharraf, speaking to reporters, urged patience when asked what concrete assurances he had received from Bush on economic aid and other matters, saying concrete actions would flow from talks and a general strengthening of relations.
In late October, following Pakistan's alignment with America, Bush signed a bill that grants him the authority to waive for two years prohibitions on major military sales and economic assistance to Pakistan imposed after Musharraf's 1999 coup against the elected government. The law specifically gave the Bush the power to waive the sanctions if it would help facilitate a return to democracy in the country and also help the United States "respond to, deter, or prevent" acts of international terrorism. President Musharraf has announced elections will be held next year.
CONFLICTING REPORTS ON WHETHER JOURNALIST IS ALIVE
PAKISTAN -- The fate of Daniel Pearl, the kidnapped American journalist, was surrounded by confusion Thursday with conflicting assertions as to whether he is dead or alive.
An Islamist militant told a court in Karachi that he had kidnapped the Wall Street Journal correspondent and believed he was dead. But Pakistani officials and the Journal said they believed Pearl was alive.
"As far as I understand, he is dead," the British-born Sheikh Omar told an anti-terrorism court and admitted, "Yes, I kidnapped him ... I will not defend the case. . . Right or wrong, I had my reasons. I think our country should not be catering to America's needs."
But a brief statement issued by the Wall Street Journal said, "We continue to remain confident that Danny is still alive." In Washington, a spokesman for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf rejected Omar's claim and said, "As far as we know, he is still alive."
In Islamabad, a spokesman for the ministry for foreign affairs, Aziz Ahmed Khan, said Omar has been changing his statement day to day. "We cannot give any credence to any of these statements that he gives," Khan said.
Omar had evaded efforts to catch him before giving himself up Tuesday. He surrendered, he told the court, because police were harassing his family.
Police say the 29-year old East Londoner, who is a graduate of the London School of Economics, has so far given them no clue that could lead to Pearl. Pearl, 38, was kidnapped from Karachi while trying to interview a radical Muslim leader linked to Omar.
YOU CAN'T SAY IT WITH FLOWERS TODAY IN SAUDI ARABIA
SAUDI ARABIA -- The Saudi religious police won't let you say it with flowers Thursday, St Valentine's Day. They have forbidden the sale of flowers, gifts, and St Valentine Day cards and their boys are out and about making sure the shops and stalls obey.
Tradesmen were given until Wednesday to withdraw from sale anything to do with the saint's feast day, used by lovers to exchange tokens of their affection. The police acted on a religious decree stipulating that Muslims are allowed to celebrate only two feasts, one at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan and the other marking the period of pilgrimage to Mecca.
Any other celebrations are considered heretical and Othman al-Othman, the chief of the religious police in Riyadh, has warned shops, hotels, restaurants and other public places against any celebrations Thursday. Motorists are not to decorate their cars with flowers and children are not to go to school dressed in red.
However, over in Jeddah on the Red Sea coast, a restaurant advertised Wednesday that it would offer a "very special" menu on Thursday. The advertisement was ringed with red flowers.