WASHINGTON -- US officials believe they have identified a 29-year-old former bodyguard of Osama bin Laden as Al Qaeda's new chief of terrorist operations in the Persian Gulf.
Abu Hazim al-Sha'ir, a Yemeni now believed to be living in Saudi Arabia, is one of a new crop of Al Qaeda operatives who are trying to fill the roles of senior bin Laden lieutenants who have been captured or killed since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, according to US officials.
"Capable replacements appear to be emerging, many of whom have demonstrated their ability to see previously planned operations through to fruition," according to one US intelligence report.
Abu Hazim is just one of the top Al Qaeda leaders now at large, according to officials from US counterterrorism agencies, who discussed intelligence on the terrorist network on the condition of anonymity.
Officials acknowledge there may be other emerging leaders they don't know about. The CIA and FBI, for example, did not learn that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, thought to be the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, was a top Al Qaeda figure until well after the attacks took place.
Abu Hazim appears to be taking the place of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a key organizer of the USS Cole bombing and the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings, officials say. Nashiri was detained in the United Arab Emirates in late 2002.
Abu Hazim is on Saudi Arabia's list of 19 most-wanted Al Qaeda operatives, listed under his real name of Khalid Ali Bin Ali al-Hajj. He is believed to have trained in Al Qaeda's Afghan camps in 1999 and later to have served in bin Laden's bodyguard. Before Sept. 11, 2001, he traveled frequently to the Arabian peninsula, to southeast Asia, and to Afghanistan.
US counterterrorism officials also tie him to the May 12 bombings of residential complexes in Riyadh and possibly to some Saudi-based planning of operations targeting the United States directly.
There is no hard evidence linking him to ongoing attacks on US forces in Iraq.
Abu Hazim's emergence as a senior figure comes as Al Qaeda is struggling to deal with the losses of many of its pre-Sept. 11 operational commanders, including Mohammed Atef, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, and Abu Zubaydah. Atef was killed in a US airstrike in Afghanistan in November 2001, and Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah later were captured separately in Pakistan.
The international hunt for such senior leaders is a key component of the US-led war against Al Qaeda. For all the thousands of people who trained at bin Laden's camps, only such senior leaders are thought to have the connections, financing, and savvy to pull off major attacks.
"The loss of so many senior operational coordinators represents the elimination of a decade worth of terrorism planning experience. These individuals were, in large part, the guiding force behind the success of Al Qaeda's attacks," the US intelligence report says.
Several leaders from Al Qaeda's old guard also remain at large. They include Ayman al-Zawahri, bin Laden's chief deputy, and Abu Musab Zarqawi, an associate of bin Laden who is now thought to be in charge of Al Qaeda operations inside Iraq.
US officials believe two more, Saif al-Adel and Abu Mohamed al-Masri, are in Iran. But it is unclear whether they are in some kind of Iranian custody or able to move and communicate at will.
Abu Hazim's presence in the Saudi kingdom is telling, said Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism chief.
"The whole locus of Al Qaeda, in terms of its power and its strength, has moved to Saudi Arabia," he said.
Other members of the organization are believed to be in Pakistani cities, where many of the arrests of key Al Qaeda operatives have taken place. Still others, including bin Laden and Zawahri, are thought to be in the remote region along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
The US intelligence report also notes the Saudi kingdom's importance to Al Qaeda. "Saudi Arabia has always been Al Qaeda's primary base of popular and religious support and funding," the report says. "While not as permissive an operating environment as Afghanistan was, the kingdom offered enough acquiescence for Al Qaeda to actively recruit, obtain, and store explosives and weapons, plan terrorist attacks, and fund-raise."
US officials say the Saudis have made significant strides in battling Al Qaeda within the country since the May 12 bombing.