Zawahiri was last sighted in Afghanistan's Khost province, close to Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal region, in October 2001, days before the Americans stormed and dislodged the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
In early 2006, he escaped a drone strike on his hideout some 300km to the north, in Pakistan's Bajaur tribal region.Since then, there have been several unconfirmed reports of his presence in the Bajaur border region as well as in some Pakistani cities, including Abbottabad, where Bin Laden was found and killed by Americans on 2 May.Zahid Hussain says that while al-Qaeda never exercised centralised control over its affiliated groups, in recent years it has attracted a lot of recruits in Pakistan while some armed groups in Libya, Yemen and Somalia have drifted close to it. "There is an ideological fusion between al-Qaeda and these groups, and there is also potential for loose co-operation."He says many in the Pakistani security establishment believe Zawahiri is the motivating figure behind the recent upsurge in militant attacks in Pakistan.Some of these attacks - such as the one on PNS Mehran in May or the November 2010 attack on CID building in Karachi - have exposed the disturbing reality that militants linked to al-Qaeda have penetrated deep into the Pakistani armed forces.
In from the cold?
The extent of this penetration is not known, and therefore it is hard to assess their capacity to hold Pakistan's military leadership hostage to their strategic aims.But some in Pakistan believe there is considerable fear within the military top brass of an "implosion" in its ranks if a vigorous anti-militancy strategy is pursued.As he turns 60 this month, Zawahiri will be hard-pressed to do something different, something that can bring al-Qaeda in from the cold.His best bet would be the Pakistani militant groups who at the moment offer the sole guarantee for al-Qaeda's survival.His challenge would be to knit these groups into a unified force that can destabilise Pakistan, an ally of the "Crusaders and Jews".Secondly, he would like to find ways to make al-Qaeda more relevant to ongoing popular insurgencies in the Arab world, few of which draw their inspiration from militant Islam. And, if luck were on his side, he would like to launch a spectacular attack somewhere in the West on the pattern of 9/11 or 7/7.Much of what he can or cannot achieve will become apparent with time, but for the moment few are willing to bet against him.