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