WASHINGTON -- U.S. officials believe they have identified a young former bodyguard of Osama bin Laden as al-Qaida's new chief of terror operations in the Persian Gulf.
Abu Hazim al-Sha'ir, a 29-year-old Yemeni now believed to be living in Saudi Arabia, is one of a new crop of al-Qaida operatives who are trying to fill the roles of senior bin Laden lieutenants who have been captured or killed since Sept. 11, 2001, according to U.S. 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 U.S. intelligence report.
Abu Hazim is just one of the top al-Qaida leaders now at large, according to officials from U.S. counterterrorism agencies, who discussed intelligence on the terror network on the condition of anonymity.
Officials acknowledge there may be other emerging leaders they don't know about or leaders participating in terrorist planning they are unaware of. The CIA and FBI, for example, did not learn that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks until well after they 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. Al-Nashiri was detained in the United Arab Emirates in late 2002.
Abu Hazim is on Saudi Arabia's list of 19 most-wanted al-Qaida operatives, listed under his real name of Khalid Ali Bin Ali Al-Hajj. He is believed to have trained in al-Qaida's Afghan camps in 1999 and later to have served in bin Laden's bodyguard. Before Sept. 11, he traveled frequently to the Arabian peninsula, to southeast Asia and to Afghanistan.
U.S. 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 isn't hard evidence tying him to ongoing attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq, however.
Abu Hazim's emergence as a senior figure comes as al-Qaida 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.
The international hunt for such senior leaders is a key component of the U.S.-led war against al-Qaida. 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 terrorist 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-Qaida's attacks," the U.S. intelligence report says.
Yet, officials acknowledge there may be other, emerging leaders they haven't identified. And several from al-Qaida's old guard 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-Qaida operations inside Iraq.
U.S. officials believe two more, Saif al-Adel and Abu Mohamed al-Masri, are in Iran. But it is unclear if 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-Qaida, 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, and many of the arrests of key al-Qaida operatives have taken place in those areas. Still others, including bin Laden himself and al-Zawahri, are thought to be in the remote region along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The U.S. intelligence report also notes the Saudi kingdom's importance to al-Qaida.
"Saudi Arabia has always been al-Qaida'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-Qaida to actively recruit, obtain and store explosives and weapons, plan terrorist attacks, and fund raise."
U.S. officials say the Saudis have made significant strides in battling al-Qaida within the country since the May 12 bombing.