OBL and Ayman al-Zawahiri Hunted by robots,you gotta luv it.

The top hierarchy of al-Qaeda has taken such a hit from US missile strikes that Osama bin Laden and his deputy have had to replace people in the terrorist organisation with men they have never met, according to Western intelligence sources.

A dozen of al-Qaeda’s “senior management” have been killed by Predator drone attacks, which have been so effective in locating their targets that the militant group has been forced to move from traditional outdoor training camps to classroom-style facilities that are hidden from view.

After the success of the new weapons, which are unmanned and operate by remote control from 15,000 feet, the United States is to step up its drone attacks. On January 1 Hellfire missiles, operated from an air force base in Nevada, hit targets in the South Waziristan region of Pakistan, close to Afghanistan, and yesterday two missiles slammed into the stronghold where Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Taleban leader, is believed to live.

The killings have had a huge impact on the structure, organisation and effectiveness of al-Qaeda, limiting the capacity for commanders to liaise with each other, further separating the top command from the lower ranks and introducing a high degree of uncertainty and a constant awareness of the likelihood of death lurking in the skies.

Bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s figurehead leader and Ayman al-Zawahiri, his Egyptian deputy, have had to rely on the loyalty of their associates to stay alive and remain hidden from the American surveillance networks.

Predators, armed with Hellfire missiles and precision-guided penetration bombs, have already succeeded in targeting two individuals believed to have ranked number three in the al-Qaeda chain of command: Hamza Rabia and Abu Laith al-Libi. They have also killed Mohammed Atef, reputedly the chief of military operations, and several of the group’s most experienced explosives and biological weapons specialists.

One of the consequences of the Predator attacks has been that al-Qaeda has had to give up its traditional terrorist training camps. Sending recruits out into the open to receive military-style jihadist instruction in combat and bomb-making has become too risky. “As soon as they are spotted, the Americans attack with Predators,” a counter-terrorist source said. Now terrorist training in the tribal regions in Pakistan is carried out “in the classroom”, less visible from the air and making it more difficult for the Americans to monitor the scale of the recruiting.

Communications between the top echelon and operatives is now restricted to human couriers. Mobile and satellite phones are never used by the core leaders because they know that American signals intelligence will be able to pinpoint individuals as soon as the devices are switched on.

Since the Americans acquired missile-armed Predators and the newer model, called Reaper, the CIA and Pentagon have focused on killing terrorist targets rather than monitoring and tracking the activities of suspected al-Qaeda figures. The killing option has led to an increasingly successful record.

Despite a number of attacks that led to civilian deaths, in more recent Predator missions – particularly over the past four months – the intelligence has been more accurate. In one mission in November a Predator strike on a compound in the village of Ali Khel in North Waziristan killed two of the most senior al-Qaeda operatives, Abu Zubair al-Masri, an Egyptian explosives expert, and Rashid Rauf, the British Pakistani who is alleged to have been linked to the Heathrow bomb plot of August 2006.

There were claims that Rauf was not in the compound at the time, but counter-terror officials firmly believe that he was there and that he died.

The killing of al-Libi, reputed to be a number three in the al-Qaeda hierarchy, in January last year was one of the biggest blows for bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. He was head of the Libyan fighting group of al-Qaeda and was regarded as an important director. He was also a charismatic, respected religious figure and operational planner who could smooth the way for al-Qaeda in the tribal areas whenever there were confrontations between the terrorist leaders and their Pakistani hosts over the constant threat posed by the American Predators. snip