U.S. intelligence officials are highly skeptical of reports that al-Qaida's new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has fled Pakistan and gone to either Yemen or Somalia. The officials told NBC News they have no intelligence that al-Zawahiri has left Pakistan.
The officials said it would be extremely risky for al-Zawahiri to try to move "outside his circle of protection" at this point, and that ever since former al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden's death, al-Zawahiri spends most of his time "trying to stay alive."
One senior official, noting the claim that al-Zawahiri fled Pakistan came from a Pakistani intelligence official, said, "These are the same people who insisted all along that bin Laden was in Afghanistan."
Earlier Wednesday, a Pakistani intelligence official told NBC News that al-Zawahiri is likely hiding in either Yemen or Somalia. He and his key commanders are believed to have "migrated" from South Asia, the source said.
Al-Zawahiri was bin Laden's deputy and became head of al-Qaida after bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs in Pakistan.
The Pakistani official, who requested anonymity because he is not allowed to speak to the media, said that "solid intelligence reports based on recent al-Qaida arrests" suggested that al-Zawahiri had "gone either to Yemen or Somalia."
An Afghan Taliban source also said al-Zawahiri had left the region, NBC News reported.
Earlier this month, three al-Qaida suspects were arrested in Quetta, Pakistan. American officials praised the arrest operation, saying the detention of the most senior militant — Younis al-Mauritani — was a significant achievement.
Pakistani officials said bin Laden had personally told al-Mauritani to focus on targets of economic importance in the United States, Europe and Australia.
CIA director David Petraeus told members of Congress Tuesday that al-Qaida's recent losses of bin Laden and others have opened "an important window of vulnerability."
Petraeus predicted that al-Qaida leaders may leave South Asia altogether to escape the CIA, which has quadrupled covert drone strikes against al-Qaida under the Obama administration. He testified at a joint congressional intelligence committee hearing.
Petraeus and the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, both said that al-Qaida's Yemeni offshoots and others are growing more daring and dangerous — a sentiment shared by lawmakers.
In a new audio message marking the 9/11 anniversary, al-Zawahiri sought to claim credit for this year's Arab uprisings, saying the 2001 attacks on the U.S. paved the way for the "Arab volcano" sweeping the region a decade later.
He urged Arabs to replace toppled regimes with Islamic rule.
The video also included a message that al-Qaida said was recorded by bin Laden before his killing in May by U.S. special forces, in which he warns Americans against "falling as slaves" to the control of major corporations.
In his new message, titled "The Dawn of Imminent Victory," al-Zawahiri also lashed out at the United States for what he called "blatant deception" in showing support for the Arab uprisings while keeping strong ties with leaders in the absolute monarchies of the Gulf, like Saudi Arabia.