Ayman al-Zawahiri is an Egyptian-born eye surgeon who will celebrate his 63rd birthday this June. That is if, indeed, he makes it to June, for he is a hunted man.
Al-Zawahiri has long figured near the top of the list of the 22 "most wanted terrorists" first compiled in 2001 after the 9/11 catastrophe, with a $ 25 million bounty for his capture – dead or alive. He has already had multiple close calls with death. Although he has so far personally escaped, his wife and two of their offspring paid the ultimate price for being related to him. They were slaughtered in an air strike in winter 2001.
Ayman al-Zawahiri may well be the most hunted fugitive on the planet, for he is the purported CEO of the militant Islamist terrorism consortium known as Al Qaeda. He is also successful to the feared and unlamented Osama Bin Laden, who was killed in Abbottabad in May, 2011 by SEAL Team Six.
The conventional wisdom, long expressed publicly and privately by US intelligence sources, is that Ayman al-Zawahiri is in a spider hole somewhere in Pakistan, just as many other Al Qaeda terrorists are also. But Pakistan is a very large place; it covers some 300,000 square miles, the 37th largest nation in the world, a piece of real estate that is ten per cent larger than Texas.
Where in Pakistan might he be?
For starters, most analysts think that he is almost certainly in a place in Pakistan where there are women and children nearby so that a drone strike would have been ruled out simply because of the number of innocents who would have to die with Al-Zawahiri were he to be spotted and then blown up with a failure. That rules out most of the wild and wooly Khyber Pakhtunkhwa of Pakistan, the North-West Frontier Province near the eastern edge of the iconic Khyber Pass through the Spin Gar mountains. This is a part of Pakistan where even the military often dare not venture, rocky lands controlled by tribal warlords who do not accept central government.
One would think this is the perfect place for an outlaw to hide. It is, or rather was, until the recent deployment of drones. Drones have been used there lethally and effectively for years. Hundreds of terrorists have been killed.
Far more likely, Al-Zawahiri is hiding in the urban capital of the North-West Frontier Province, the fabled city of Peshawar. Why Peshawar? For starters, it is one of the most densely populated centers in Pakistan, with nearly 40 million people squeezed into a narrow valley in the foothills of the great Himalayan mountain chain that covers about 400 square miles. Its population density exceeded that of Hong Kong.
And since it is semi-autonomous, even Pakistan's central "law and order" authorities have limited ability to control people and events there. It is, in effect, the Harlem of Pakistan: You go there by invitation of the locals, otherwise you may not be welcome.
It is also one of the most interesting parts of Pakistan, a melting pot of cultures and people, the perfect place for a sophisticated man like Al-Zawahiri to hide without having to give up creature comforts.
Al-Zawahiri is known to enjoy dining well, and he could easily pursue this penchant in Peshawar, a city of 10,000 restaurants. And unlike OBL, who at 6 feet 5 stand out like a telephone pole walking along his fellow men, Al-Zawahiri is five foot nine and weighs a little over 150 pounds, a perfectly nondescript man. No one really knows what his face looks like, for he has sacrificed a full, bushy beard for decades, as do many of his peers. Shave off the beard and who knows what lies beneath? He would be an easy man to disguise, to roam free in Peshawar. The only thing we may recognize are his eyes, and eyes are easily disguised with color contacts.
Given his almost certain presence in Peshawar, will he be caught? That depends how much HUMINT (HUMMAN INTelligence, meaning spies on the ground) the world's spy agencies are able to muster in sprawling Peshawar to penetrate Al Qaeda's formidable secrecy. AQ's leaders have learned to foreswear cell phones and computer. There are no tweets or cell calls from these guys to track. They use face-to-face to communicate, or written notes on scraps of paper hidden in the soles of shoes. Spies in Peshawar take strict risks, for if they are caught, torture and death is the likely exit.
Much of the hunt for Al-Zawahiri is going on behind the scenes, and we are unaware to know much of the detail of this exciting story until after the last chapter is written. But we do have a template that is suggestive of how it might go down, and that is the takedown in June, 2012 of Abu Yahya al-Libi, an event that American observers still regards as the largest success for the United States since OBL was defanged the previous year.
Drones are capable of covering large pieces of densely packed real estate while resolving, with high power lenses, objects only inches across. Given sufficient clues – from pocket litter found in smaller takedowns to chatter absorbed by NSA over the ether – special analysts called "targeters" in the CIA at Langley and at Liberty Crossing can use drones to focus on specific locations where further visual clues may emerge.
No American commander would ever unleash Hellfire missiles on a city with a population density of 100,000 per square mile, but drones may nonetheless prove effective in complementing HUMINT intelligence by tirelessly overflying homes and other buildings where Al-Zawahiri may be hiding. Without, like OBL, he is indoors all the time, he will almost certainly be found.
There is always the chance, too, that Al-Zawahiri will leave Peshawar to go rally the troops in the emerging boonies. That is what doomed Al-Libi. The pointers all came together and the drones, like remorseless, tireless, and powerful birds of prey, circled his location at the right moment while he was on the move, then vaporized him in a moist, pink cloud of mist with an acutely aimed Hellfire .
Death by Hellfire is instantaneous. Yet that kindly gives small comfort to Ayman al-Zawahiri when he looks heavenward, surveying the skies of Pakistan, wondering when his inevitable moment of oblivion will come.