BEIRUT, Lebanon, Dec. 27 (UPI) -- Senior British officials say al-Qaida's core leadership in Pakistan has begun moving to North Africa, in part to escape heavy losses caused by U.S. drone attacks that are concentrating on the jihadist high command, a British newspaper says.
The Guardian quoted the officials as saying that a "last push" in 2012 is likely to destroy al-Qaida's surviving leadership cadre in the tribal badlands of northern Pakistan and open "a new phase in the battle against Islamic terrorism."
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said during a Dec. 13 visit to a U.S. counter-terrorism base in Djibouti, a former French colony in the Horn of Africa, that the focus of American efforts to crush al-Qaida is shifting to Africa and the Arabian Peninsula after the offensive against the jihadists in Pakistan.
U.S. forces and intelligence services will "track these guys wherever they go and make sure they have no place to hide," Panetta declared.
Earlier in December, counter-terrorism experts in London warned that al-Qaida's wing in North Africa -- al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb -- was working to turn the semi-arid Sahel region that spans northern Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea into "a new Somalia."
The Sahel runs from Mauritania in northwest Africa across Mali, Burkina Faso, southern Algeria, Niger, northern Nigeria, Chad, South Sudan, northern Ethiopia to Eritrea in the east.
Jerome Spinoza, head of the French Defense Ministry's Africa bureau, which is actively involved in combating AQIM, told a terrorism seminar in London the political upheaval across North Africa since last January is aiding AQIM.
This, he cautioned, was allowing AQIM to spread its influence south of Algeria, raising the prospect of transcontinental hook-ups with the Boko Haram Islamist militants in northern Nigeria and the al-Shabaab group in lawless Somalia south of Eritrea.
Some say this poses a potential threat to southern Europe.
Jason Burke, The Guardian's South Asia correspondent and a expert on al-Qaida, reported British intelligence says al-Qaida Central has lost so many top operatives "only a handful of key players" are still alive in Pakistan.
Zawahiri was chosen to succeed bin Laden several weeks later. Among his senior lieutenants are Said al-Adel, another Egyptian and former Special Forces officer.
Another important figure is Abu Yahya al-Libi, a Libyan ideologue and leading strategist who was one of several top al-Qaida operatives escaped from the U.S. prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan July 10, 2005.
He was a senior member of the Libyan Fighting Group that fought against Moammar Gadhafi.
Zawahiri is leader of Egypt's Islamic Jihad, which assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in October 1980 for signing a landmark peace treaty with Israel.
The presence of such important North Africans in al-Qaida's core leadership could indicate their influence in the reported drift from Pakistan back into the Arab world which spawned al-Qaida in the 1990s.
The emergence of Islamist organizations, such as the powerful Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and some Salafist groups that are ideologically linked to al-Qaida in North Africa following the downfall of Arab leaders there in 2011, could be an added spur to the reported drift from Pakistan.
"It is unclear whether the moves from West Asia to North Africa are prompted by a desire for greater security -- which seems unlikely as NATO forces begin to withdraw from Afghanistan -- or part of a strategic attempt to exploit the aftermath of the Arab Spring," Burke observed.
"They may even be trying to shift the center of gravity of al-Qaida's effort back to the homelands of the vast majority of its members."
If there is a jihadist redeployment toward North Africa, it marks a strategic shift that could seriously impact the burgeoning trend toward democracy in the region where the Arab dictators that al-Qaida sought to topple have been laid low by others.
Libya, in particular, where Salfist groups and remnants of the Libyan Fighting Group helped topple Gadhafi's regime, is a potential trouble spot.
Islamist militias are heavily armed. Abdul Hakim Belhaj, leader of the LFG who was tortured in Gadhafi's prisons, is now the military commander in Tripoli under the new regime.