Pakistani Military Says Zawahiri May Be Dead

ABC News has an “exclusive,” based on Pakistani military sources, that a U.S. bombing raid killed al Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Photo Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri is believed to be Osama bin Laden's top lieutenant in al Qaeda. (ABC News) Jan. 13, 2006 — Today, according to Pakistani military sources, U.S. aircraft attacked a compound known to be frequented by high-level al Qaeda operatives. Pakistani officials tell ABC News that al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s top lieutenant, may have been among them. U.S. intelligence for the last few days indicated that Zawahiri might have been in the location or about to arrive, although there is still no confirmation from U.S. officials that he was among the victims.

The attack took place early this morning Pakistan time in a small village a few miles from the border with Afghanistan. Villagers described seeing an unmanned plane circling the area for the last few days and then bombs falling in the early morning darkness.
Eighteen people were killed, according to the villagers who said women and children were among the fatalities.

But Pakistani officials tell ABC News that five of those killed were high-level al Qaeda figures, and their bodies are now undergoing forensic tests for positive identification.

Whether he’s actually dead, he was apparently the prime target of the strike, according to multiple reports. CNN’s David Ensor provides details and a link to a video:

Photo Intelligence suggests that Ayman al-Zawahiri, seen in this September video, may have been killed.Ayman al-Zawahiri — Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man in the al Qaeda terrorist network — was the target of a CIA airstrike Friday in a remote Pakistani village and may have been among those killed, knowledgeable U.S. sources told CNN.

There has been no confirmation that al-Zawahiri was killed in the attack, which took place in the village of Damadola, near the Afghan border.

However, the sources said there was intelligence suggesting he was in one of the buildings hit during the strike. (Watch how al-Zawahiri was targeted — 5:39)

Doug Jehl and Mohammad Khan, writing for the NYT, add more operational detail and some important background information:

The American and Pakistani officials said they believed that the attack had been carried out with a missile launched from a Predator drone aircraft operated by the Central Intelligence Agency. A C.I.A. spokesman declined to comment, but the attack was described by other American and Pakistani officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the operation.

[…]

Citing unidentified American sources, CNN said intelligence suggested that Mr. Zawahiri had been in a building that was struck. ABC, citing anonymous Pakistani military officials, said on its Web site that five of those killed were high-level Qaeda figures.

Pakistan has not granted American forces in Afghanistan the right to cross the border, even in pursuit of militants. American-led coalition forces clashing with militants in the mountainous province of Kunar say they have often been frustrated by their foes’ use of Pakistan as a sanctuary.

United States military spokesmen in Afghanistan and at the Pentagon said they had no reports of American aircraft active in the area at the time of the explosions. Asked if a pilotless Predator aircraft might have been operating in the area, Maj. Todd Vicion, a public affairs officer at the Pentagon, said he did not know. “Those are operational details that we don’t track,” he said. Predators are operated by the Central Intelligence Agency, not the United States military.

In the cat-and-mouse game between United States forces and Qaeda leaders, there have been attempts over several years to kill Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda’s leader, and Mr. Zawahiri, with rumors that Mr. Zawahiri has been killed, or nearly killed. In March 2004, Pakistan’s government indicated that in a battle between Pakistani soldiers and militants Mr. Zawahiri had been surrounded. But they later backed away from their statements, and within days there was a new taped message said to be from Mr. Zawahiri, calling for President Pervez Musharraf to be ousted.

Counterterrorism Blog’s Andrew Cochran provides hope that this one is legit, “A reliable source with high-level U.S. contacts tells me that U.S. “really believes” we might have whacked him. This effort has developed over the past few days as intel has indicated his presence in Damadola, a small village near the Afghan border.”

Elsewhere in the Blogosphere:

  • McQ is hopeful, “I’m still of the opinion bin Laden met his end a while back. Getting al-Zawahiri in Pakistan would put a nice exclamation point to the ‘none!’ given in answer to the question, ‘how much of a distraction is Iraq in the War on Terror?'”
  • John Hinderaker: “. . . I’m not holding my breath. It is extraordinarily difficult to pinpoint the location of a single individual at a particular moment, as we have seen over the years with Noriega, bin Laden, Saddam and others.”
  • Juan Cole: “This time the leaks seem also to come from Washington counter-terrorism sources, so maybe there is something to them. On the other hand, the US intelligence people may have decided that Zawahiri has been making too much noise and that starting a rumor that he may have been killed will hurt his charisma at least in the short term.”
  • Kevin Aylward: “If Zawahiri was killed it would be a major blow to al Qaeda.”
  • Shakespeare’s Sister: “Possibly getting the #2 man in an organization that perpetrated a four-year old attack which has repeatedly served as a justification for undermining our civil liberties and was tacitly linked to a completely unrelated regime to rationalize an unjust war, when the mastermind of said attack still hasn’t been “smoked outӉ€”either dead or alive—just isn’t making me feel particularly orgasmic.”

For the record, I’m somewhere between Aylward and Sister on this one. Al Qaeda has been remarkably resilient in replacing key leaders (see Scott Adams’ snark about #3 al Qaeda leader being the world’s worst job) but Zawahiri is arguably the world’s premier Islamist terrorist and finding someone of similar charisma and bona fides would be quite difficult. Like Osama bin Laden, he traveled to Afghanistan to fight with the mujahideen and he was a key signatory to the 1998 “World Islamic Front Against Jews and Crusaders” jihad. His death would be a serious blow to the morale of the movement.

Update (0802): Alas, it appears this one is wrong. AP is reporting that Zawahiri was not at the scene.

Photo In this television image from Arab satellite station Al-Jazeera, Osama bin Laden, right, listens as his top deputy Ayman al-Zawahri speaks at an undisclosed location, in this image made from undated video tape broadcast by the station on April 15, 2002. A pre-dawn airstrike killed at least 17 people in a remote Pakistani tribal area Friday, Jan. 13, 2006, and U.S. networks said American jets were targeting a suspected al-Qaida hideout that may have been frequented by high-level operatives, possibly the terror group's No. 2 leader Ayman al-Zawahri. There was no confirmation from either the Pakistani or U.S. government. (AP Photo/Al-Jazeera/APTN, File) Al-Qaida’s second-in-command was the target of a U.S. airstrike near the Afghan border but he was not at the site of the attack, two senior Pakistani officials said Saturday. […] The two Pakistani officials told The Associated Press on Saturday that the CIA had acted on incorrect information, and Ayman al-Zawahri was not in the village of Damadola when it came under attack. […] “Their information was wrong, and our investigations conclude that they acted on a false information,” said a senior intelligence official. His account was confirmed by a senior government official, who said al-Zawahri “was not there.”

It’s not inconceivable that the second report is wrong, although I’d bet otherwise. We’ll know for sure once the DNA tests come in.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Jack Ehrlich says:

    Shakespeare’s Sister: It sounds like it would take extra ordiary circumstances for you to approve of anything this President has done. Saddam booster are you? Got pictures of him feeding people into a wood chipper do you? I’ll bet you like the ones of his troops throwing people off of building that were high enough to severly injure rather than kill outright. Do you get orgasmic at the thought of your Iraqi sisters being forced into rape rooms, or raped in front of their families, who are killed if they object? If you had your way, Saddam would still be busy doing his business, you know, oil for food. Only there was no food, just guns and bombs and missles and Mercedes Benzs, not medicine for the children. I am glad people like you think Saddam was a hero. How do you sleep at night?

  2. Anderson says:

    Great, Jack. How do you think the parents of those dead children are sleeping at night?

    If the U.S. military deliberately blew up my kids on the theory that they might possibly nail someone else in the building, I would make killing American soldiers my # 1 mission in life. And hell, I *am* an American.