WASHINGTON, May 1: Egyptian Ayman al Zawahri has emerged as the hands-on operational leader of the Al Qaeda network, reducing Osama bin Laden to a figurehead role, a top US counterterrorism official said on Friday.

Cofer Black, a former chief Al Qaeda hunter at the Central Intelligence Agency who now coordinates counter-terrorism activities at the State Department, warned that Ayman al Zawahiri, a man associated with radical causes since the 1960s, "tends to be more operational than Osama bin Laden".

"I think Zawahiri represents more of a threat comparatively between the two men," Cofer Black told CNN television. "Zawahiri is certainly in the field and operating, has lines of communication to his subordinates and is planning attacks as we speak."

He described Osama as a "figurehead" leader increasingly out of touch with his followers.

"He's very defensive. He knows we're after him. And he spends most of his time hiding from us," Mr Black said of Osama.

Warning that both men still were capable of mounting operations, Mr Black called Al Zawahiri "a significant threat" but pointedly refrained from giving the same characterization to Osama.

He compared the Al Qaeda founder to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

More than 3,400 of the group's lower-ranking operatives and supporters have also been detained or otherwise neutralized, these officials insist.

But a report on worldwide terrorism patterns released by the State Department on Thursday acknowledged that Al Qaeda probably still has several thousand members and associates it can rely on.-AFP

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