Analysis: Reports of Zawahiri's death are based on suspect sources


Ayman al Zawahiri.

As Western and Pakistani intelligence sort through the fallout from the July 28 airstrike in South Waziristan, Pakistan, rumors are swirling that Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda's second in command, was either killed or seriously wounded in the attack.

All of these rumors have been based on Pakistani intelligence sources, which makes the allegations suspect. Without confirmation from the US military or intelligence, the reports from Pakistan should be viewed with deep skepticism.

From the strike to the Zawahiri rumor

Rumors of Zawahiri's death or wounding began four days after what appears to be a US Predator unmanned aerial vehicle strike on a madrassa in the village of Zeralita in the Azam Warsak region of South Waziristan. Six people, including three Arabs, were reported killed in the attack. The madrassa was said to be a safe house and meeting place for senior al Qaeda commanders.

Immediately after the attack, unnamed Pakistani intelligence officials claimed al Qaeda weapons expert Midhat Mursi al Sayyid Umar, who is better known as Abu Khabab al Masri, was killed in the attack. Sheikh Ibrahim, "a mid ranking al Qaeda operative believed to be either Egyptian or Jordanian," was also reported killed in the attack.

Four days later, two reports emerged that stated Zawahiri was either killed or seriously injured in the strike. The first news on Zawahiri's involvement in the strike came from STRATFOR, which repeated the claim from a Pashtu television station that Zawahiri was killed. The Pakistani station broadcast the report of Zawahiri's demise on July 29, yet the report was not repeated in Pakistan's robust, independent media outlets.

The Pakistani station based its report on an unnamed Pakistani official. "The channel also interviewed an official from the Pakistani army's Inter-Services Public Relations directorate who said the military was aware of the incident but could not confirm the report," according to STRATFOR. The Inter-Services Public Relations is the public relation arm for Pakistan's military. This organization has been less than trustworthy in reporting on issues relating to dealings with the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Later today, CBS News followed the story of Zawahiri's death with an independent report that he was gravely wounded, and the Taliban was seeking medical assistance for the al Qaeda leader. The report, which claimed Zawahiri is in "'severe pain' and his 'injuries are infected,'" is based on a purported intercept of a letter from none other than Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, "whose signature and seal are visible on the letter."

The letter was apparently forwarded to CBS News by Pakistani intelligence sources, who claim to have verified Baitullah's signature and seal. CBS News could not confirm the authenticity of the letter, and stated that US intelligence officials are investigating the report.

Reasons for skepticism

Without official US confirmation of Zawahiri's death or his being severely wounded, all reports originating from Pakistani intelligence sources should be treated as suspect. The Pakistani military and intelligence agencies have made a nearly identical false report on the death of senior al Qaeda leaders. The reports come as Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani was conducting a visit to the United States and Pakistan's military and primary intelligence agency have come under fire for supporting extremists. Also, al Qaeda has been silent on the issue of the reports.

An Identical false report

This week's report of a strike that resulted in the death of both Zawahiri and Khabab is identical to the reports emanating from Pakistan in January 2006. At that time, the US conducted an airstrike against a madrassa in the town of Damadola in the Bajuar tribal agency. Zawahiri was believed to be attending a meeting with senior al Qaeda leaders.

Pakistani sources claimed Zawahiri was among those targeted, but later backed off and stated that Khabab and four other al Qaeda leaders were killed in the attack. Pakistani intelligence even claimed to have DNA evidence asserting that Khabab was killed. It wasn't until 19 months later that the US learned Khabab and the other al Qaeda leader were still alive.

More than two and a half years later, we are receiving reports that Zawahiri, Khabab, and another al Qaeda leader were killed in a Predator airstrike.

Pakistan under fire

The timing of the purported demise of Zawahiri and Khabab also makes these reports difficult to believe. Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani visited the United States this week just as the government has come under fire for failing to quell the rise of the Taliban and al Qaeda and the Inter-Service Intelligence agency has been accused of directly supporting the Taliban and al Qaeda.

The President George Bush, the US Central Intelligence Agency, and senior US military commanders have openly confronted the Pakistani government over its links to terror groups. US officials have also accused Pakistani intelligence of supporting the July 7 suicide attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. Today, Pakistan's information minister admitted elements of the Inter-Service Intelligence supports the Taliban and the agency needs to be purged.

The Pakistani government, military, and intelligence services would all benefit from redirecting the news cycle from reports of Pakistan's support of the Taliban and al Qaeda to the death of al Qaeda's second in command.

Jihadi silence

While unnamed Pakistani intelligence sources have floated rumors on the status of Zawahiri, al Qaeda and its media apparatus, and its network of online forums have been silent on the issue. Zawahiri's death would be difficult for al Qaeda to conceal from its members. And al Qaeda has issued "martyrdom" eulogies for its leaders when killed.

The most recent and high-profile example of this is the death of al Qaeda commander Abu Laith al Libi. US forces killed al Libi in a cross-border airstrike in South Waziristan on January 29. Within two days, al Qaeda published a martyrdom video for al Libi. Before his death, the jihadi forums were abuzz speculating on the possibility of al Libi's death.

But the jihadi Internet forums, which are closely monitored by US intelligence and private intelligence companies, have been silent on the possibility of Zawahiri or Khabab's death. Al Qaeda would jump on the propaganda opportunity to promote the life and struggles of Zawahiri, and praise his death at the hands of the Americans.

Proceed with caution

US intelligence agencies are currently working to confirm or deny the recent reports of the death of Zawahiri and Khabab, as they do in all reports of the deaths of high-value targets. Again, without official independent confirmation of Zawahiri's death from US intelligence or the military, reports from Pakistani intelligence sources should be treated with skepticism. It is certainly possible that Zawahiri was killed in the July 28 strike, but without confirmation from credible sources, the reports are merely rumors.


Updated August 2, 2008.
Reports on Zawahiri rumors:

No evidence of al Qaeda No. 2's illness or death, U.S. says - CNN
Pakistani Taliban deny Zawahri death report - Reuters



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READER COMMENTS: "Analysis: Reports of Zawahiri's death are based on suspect sources"

Posted by Thanos at August 1, 2008 11:54 PM ET:

A cocktail party theory regarding this:
Rumors of Bin Laden's or Zawahiri's demise surface when they are in transit to draw attention elsewhere. Or ... they surface a week or two before a new agitrprop tape to draw attention back.

Posted by crosspatch at August 2, 2008 3:11 AM ET:

This whole thing has a smell not unlike what the Brits did to the Germans in WWII with the V-bombs. The Brits had a channel into German intelligence because they controlled every single German spy in England. When the V-bombs started hitting London, the Brits injected feedback into German intelligence that the bombs were falling short. This caused the Germans to adjust the missiles and they began to fall long and the Germans got the word that they were right on target.

In this case we might have a case of Pakistani intelligence warning of impending attacks and then creating damage and casualty reports to make hits on empty locations appear to have hit high value targets.

I don't trust a single thing that comes out of Pakistan even if it validates what I would want to believe. There are so much conflicting information that you can find validation of anything you want to believe.

Posted by Black Dog at August 2, 2008 8:05 AM ET:

A very good chance he is dead.
They haven't acknowledged the death of the traitor Adam Gadahn yet, although the Al Qaeda slickly produced propaganda videos and other web offerings have dried up completely since the strike in which he was rumoured to have been actually killed.

I personally wouldn't give too much credence to the fact that they have in the past announced and celebrated the "martyrdom" of certain of their terrorist charges and that there isn't one here.
I don't think it will be lost on them that an annoucement of the loss of their most high profile terrorist could affect morale within the organisation and would in fact give the enemy a cause to rejoice.
They surely wouldn't like that to happen.

Although our media paint a picture of how effecient the terrorists are to avoid detection - what with sleeping in a different location every single night and so forth, this can't be easy to keep up forever.
Male bonding is a big thing in their lives and as in the case of Adam Gadahn, this for Zawahiri was one sausage party too many.

Posted by Rhyno327/lrsd at August 2, 2008 10:02 AM ET:

Trust almost NOTHING coming from the ISI or thier other intel. agencies. I wonder how many times they gave the US intel that lead to the deaths of civilians only, while the real targets are being protected by the ISI. This could be misinformation, and I would not doubt it. I guess we will find out when the US realizes it must strike inside Pakistan, and put boots on the ground. The Deputy Dir. already laid it out for them. We know. The ISI is helping the T-ban.

Posted by jay at August 2, 2008 4:12 PM ET:

"Hey buddy, good news! Zawahiri is dead!" A
That's great! Who reported it?" B
"A reputable source, CBS!" A
"And who is THEIR source?" B
"The Pakistanis....On second thought, nevermind" A

Posted by Guy Blaise at August 2, 2008 8:49 PM ET:

The rumor of the death of Al-Qaeda's second in command Ayman Al-zawahiri is not surprising. How many times was he "killed"? How many times did he reappear ? Black, White, or Green, terrorists or non-terrorists death is invincible. As the M'bochi of Congo say,"Death is an exam for which everyone is a candidate, and everyone is admitted one day."
Guy Blaise

Posted by AMac at August 3, 2008 9:18 AM ET:

On the subject of Zawahiri, here is a well-done parody of an in-house al Qaeda newsletter.