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Hunt on for bin Laden's latest No. 3 man

Pakistani officials are seeking a man they and U.S. officials believe has taken over responsibility for planning al-Qaida attacks on the United States. By NBC's Robert Windrem.
Pakistani government poster of most wanted terrorists
A new poster of Pakistan's "most-wanted terrorists" features Abu Faraj al Libi in the top right photo.Zahid Hussein / Reuters

Pakistani officials are seeking a man they and U.S. officials believe has taken over responsibility for planning al-Qaida attacks on the United States. They say he is the new No. 3 man in the terrorist network and may know the general whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri — al-Qaida's No. 2 man.

Abu Faraj al Libi, a Libyan citizen who has long worked with bin Laden, is believed to have taken over the No. 3 job with the capture of his mentor, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, in March 2003, a senior U.S. official told NBC News. Like all of the officials interviewed for this story, the official spoke on condition of anonymity.

As Mohammed's top deputy, Abu Faraj is believed to have played a role in organizing the 9/11 attacks.

Today, he is believed to be in charge of all al-Qaida's U.S. and United Kingdom operations, including any current plots. Abu Faraj is also believed to know at least the general whereabouts of bin Laden and al Zawahiri, and to be the mastermind of the Dec. 14 and 25 assassination attempts against Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

'We will get him'
Pakistani officials told NBC News that Musharraf has told confidantes in the past few days, "We will get him."

On Thursday, Pakistani officials issued a poster of the country's "most wanted terrorists," offering rewards of $340,000 for the capture of Abu Faraj and another man, Amjad Hussein. Smaller rewards are listed for four others. Pakistani officials said that Abu Faraj is also known as "Dr. Taufeek."  All but Abu Faraj are Pakistani citizens.

U.S. officials believe Abu Faraj operates out of the tribal areas of western Pakistan, like bin Laden and Zawahiri, who, Pakistani officials believe, are living and traveling separately in the province of South Waziristan, near the Afghan border. Officials believe that Abu Faraj moves more freely than the other two and that he is accompanied, like all top al-Qaida officials, by a security detail and financial advisers.

Capturing him has become a top priority of intelligence agencies in both countries.  Although Abu Faraj has been known to intelligence officials for several years and has been a top target since the capture of Mohammed, finding him has taken on a new urgency with the discovery of surveillance reports and other intelligence on the hard drives of three al-Qaida operatives. The material has provided the United States and Pakistan with a treasure trove of material regarding al-Qaida plans.

Unfamiliar with the West
Much of what is known about Abu Faraj comes from al-Qaida detainees, both those captured in 2003, like Mohammed, and others captured recently. Abu Faraj had previously been the director of al-Qaida's North African operations and Mohammed's personal aide.

Unlike Mohammed, Abu Faraj is low key, older and unfamiliar with the West, which U.S. officials believe puts him at a disadvantage compared to his predecessor and mentor. He is typical of the new leaders of the terrorist organization, say U.S. officials — not as capable as their predecessors, but dangerous nonetheless.

"KSM [Mohammed] was a full-service terrorist," said one U.S. official. "He taught al-Qaida operatives how to act in the West. Abu Faraj cannot do that, but he does have the trust of Osama bin Laden."

Robert Windrem is an NBC investigative producer based in New York.