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Al Qaeda Members Moving To Middle East

This story was written by CBS News correspondent Sheila MacVicar in London and Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad.

Al Qaeda has scaled down its leadership structure in Afghanistan and is poised to shift its main decision making to somewhere in the Middle East, possibly Iraq, senior Arab officials have revealed to CBS News, as speculation continues over the fate of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Since Saturday morning when news of bin Laden's death due to typhoid was first reported in a French regional newspaper, officials in the U.S., France and Pakistan have denied first hand knowledge of that account.

The latest global speculation on bin Laden's fate mounted where L'Est Republicain, the French newspaper printed what it described as a copy of a confidential document from the DGSE, the French intelligence service, citing an uncorroborated report from a "usually reliable source" saying that Saudi secret services are convinced Osama bin Laden had died.

An Arab diplomat in Pakistan, however, said confirmation of the report was being hindered mainly because there was no evidence yet on bin Laden's body. For months, there have been reports of his worsening health and latest claim of his exposure to typhoid "could be very credible, he is a sick man with health related issues" said the diplomat who asked not to be named.

The diplomat said there were reports recently of al Qaeda ordering its Arab members who remained in the Pakistan-Afghan border region to move to the Middle East, after the group's leaders concluded that their followers in local militant groups around the region were capable of carrying on al Qaeda's work. "This decision was meant to close the al Qaeda Arab chapter in this part of the world. But al Qaeda remains in the shape of local non Arab militants who would carry on its work" he added.

A Saudi security advisor told CBS News that the exodus of Arab al Qaeda members, mostly originating from the Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, began in mid to late July, and continued throughout August. Saudi intelligence has not yet determined why this exodus has taken place, says the advisor.

In the past year, Saudi Arabia has greatly improved its intelligence gathering capacity in the region and on al Qaeda in particular. This is in reaction to al Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia, and a growing recognition of the threat Islamist extremists – including al Qaeda members – pose to the security of the Kingdom. CBS News has also learned that as part of the improved intelligence capacity, Saudi Arabia has also been able to better identify, and interrogate those were with al Qaeda groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan as they returned to their home country.

By implication, the decision to move the group out of the region suggests that Osama bin Laden - a Saudi Arabian national, was either going to move "or maybe we are moving to a post bin Laden era which is the subject of today's speculation" added the diplomat.

Another Arab diplomat said he had seen reports just in the past fortnight of Arab fighters moving from the Pak-Afghan region, either using the land route via Iran or one of the central Asian countries, with some trying to pass through Pakistan.

"The destination of these people is back to the Middle East. Iraq we know is right now the biggest battleground for such people and I have heard enough on the subject of Iraq working as a magnet for militant groups to go along with the view that some may be heading to Iraq," said the diplomat who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Pakistani government officials meanwhile said there was no evidence of Osama bin Laden's death. But opinion remains divided on how far such an event would not be reported by al Qaeda.

"It is possible that some in al Qaeda believe that the symbolism of Osama bin Laden inspires many Muslims and therefore his image has to be kept alive for now" said one Pakistani official who asked not to be named.

"But it is also possible that news of his death is put to inspire Muslims to remember this figure and to take his task forward. These are all bits of speculation, no one knows for certain" added the Pakistani official.

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