Ayman Zawahiri, the second-ranking al Qaeda leader and chief deputy to Osama bin Laden, was targeted by a deadly U.S. missile strike on a compound in Pakistan yesterday, but U.S. intelligence could not confirm whether he was killed, according to U.S. sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Acting on sensitive intelligence describing the whereabouts of Zawahiri and other top al Qaeda figures, the CIA ordered the airstrike by a Predator drone that fired an air-to-ground missile at the compound, nestled on the border with Afghanistan. The sources said more than a dozen people may have died in the attack. It was too early to confirm the identities of the dead, but U.S. military officials said Zawahiri may be among them.
"This would not have happened unless they had pretty precise information that the right target was at that location," said one U.S. military source. He cautioned, however, that it was possible Zawahiri got out of the building before it was hit. The source said U.S. forces, who had been tracking Zawahiri for the past two weeks, will probably know more once the bodies can be examined.
"This would not have happened without Pakistani involvement," the source said, adding that Pakistanis were "heavily involved." He said the attack was planned and executed by a combination of CIA officers in Pakistan and Pakistani officials.
CIA officials declined to comment on the report. A spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, the military organization in charge of the region, said last night that the mission was not a Central Command operation. He added that there was no "operational reporting" of the incident through military channels. A Pentagon official said he could not comment on any "alleged airstrike."
A Defense Department official said last night that there were "no coalition military aircraft in the area of the reported explosion in a Pakistani village."
In Pakistan, intelligence officials offered conflicting reports on the strike. One official called it a "rumor," but another, speaking from Peshawar, said: "There is no doubt that it was a Predator strike, and it seems that the U.S. intelligence was acting on some specific intelligence. So often these intelligence reports were found to be incorrect in the past."
Locals in the border region said the victims of the strike were Afghans, including nine women and six children. "Each and every person killed in this attack by the U.S. forces has been identified, and we have provided these details to the government," Haroon Rashid, a politician from Bajur, said in a telephone interview.
ABC News, quoting unnamed Pakistani military sources, reported that five of the dead were senior al Qaeda figures and that the bodies would undergo forensic tests to establish their identities. Reuters quoted a Pakistani military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, as saying that as many as 14 people were killed in several explosions in the Bajaur tribal region but that he did not know the cause of the blasts.
On Jan. 6, al-Jazeera television broadcast videotaped remarks by Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor, saying President Bush had admitted defeat in Iraq by announcing plans to reduce the U.S. troop presence there. He called Bush's remarks a victory for Islam.
"Bush, you must admit that you have been defeated in Iraq and that you are being defeated in Afghanistan and that you will soon be defeated in Palestine," Zawahiri said, according to a translation of his statement by the Washington-based SITE Institute. Zawahiri was the leader of the radical Egyptian Islamic Jihad before merging his group with bin Laden's in the late 1990s in Afghanistan. Together, the two men created al Qaeda, a movement that called itself the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders.
In the recent videotape, Zawahiri warned Americans: "As long as you do not deal with Muslim nations with understanding and respect, you will still go from one disaster to another. And your calamity will not end, unless you leave our lands and stop stealing our resources and stop supporting the bad rulers in our countries."
U.S. officials quickly confirmed the authenticity of the remarks. It was not clear yesterday whether the videotape, recently made, helped the officials identify Zawahiri's location.
Bin Laden and Zawahiri head the list of more than three dozen of al Qaeda's "high-value targets" U.S. forces began hunting seriously after the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the pursuit intensified.
Born to a wealthy Egyptian family in 1951, Zawahiri is four years older than bin Laden. The two men appear to have met for the first time in the late 1980s in Peshawar, the Pakistani city that served as one of the bases for Muslims fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Like bin Laden, Zawahiri was a disciple of Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian scholar and guerrilla organizer who recruited thousands of Arab volunteers to fight in Afghanistan. Zawahiri worked as a doctor in Azzam's rest house and hospital in Peshawar for Afghan fighters.
Many in al Qaeda have long seen the bespectacled Zawahiri as the brains behind the organization. Zawahiri's influence over bin Laden can be seen in the 1998 declaration of jihad on "Jews and crusaders," which the two men signed jointly. Before 1998, bin Laden focused primarily on expelling U.S. forces from his native Saudi Arabia, the site of Islam's holiest places. After 1998, he broadened his agenda to include denunciations of the U.S. alliance with Israel and its "aggression" against Iraq.
Witte reported from Afghanistan. Special correspondent Kamran Khan in Pakistan and staff writer Josh White and researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.