Unconfirmed reports from Pakistani and U.S. intelligence sources indicate a CIA airstrike was carried out against a compound in Pakistan which contained Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s number two in command, and four other unnamed senior al Qaeda leaders. Eighteen people are believed to have been killed in the strike.
According to Reuters, “A Pakistani intelligence official said four U.S. aircraft had intruded into Pakistani airspace and fired four missiles.” The Counterterrorism Blog quotes a source which indicate ten missiles were fired. The aircraft are believed to have been predator drones, presumably armed with Hellfire missiles.
The strike is said to have occurred in the rural town of Damadola, a small village near the Afghan border in the province of Bajaur, which is about ninety miles North of North Waziristan, the scene of recent unrest in Pakistan and an area believed to be an al Qaeda and Taliban stronghold. A Pakistani intelligence source claims, according to Reuters, “Damadola has been a stronghold of Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (Movement for the Implementation of Mohammad’s Sharia Law), a pro-Taliban group banned by Pakistan in January 2002.”
DNA testing will be required for positive identification, but reaching the site of the attack may prove difficult. Adnkronos reports “People are very angry. They are not allowing access” to the crash site. The town sits right on the border with Afghanistan in a remote location where Pakistani troops are not believed to be operating. The survivors may bury or destroy the remains before an investigative team arrives, and which may be required to fight their way to the scene of the attack.
If Zawahiri’s death is confirmed, he will be yet the latest and most senior member of al Qaeda killed in Pakistan. The tribal regions of Pakistan have long been a haven for al Qaeda and the Taliban since their ouster in the winter of 2002. The Taliban has recently threatened to step up attacks, and there are reports al Qaeda is shifting focus from Iraq to Afghanistan. In Zawahiri’s letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, he intimates that Pakistan’s tribal belt is the main base of operations into Afghanistan for al Qaeda and the Taliban; “the real danger [to al Qaeda] comes from the agent Pakistani army that is carrying out operations in the tribal areas looking for mujahideen.”
The death of Zawahiri, if true, would be a devastating loss for al Qaeda. Zawahiri is believed to be the mastermind and guiding hand of the organization, and his roots in jihad against the West extend to his early teenage years. He was arrested at the age of fifteen for being a member of the Egyptian Brotherhood, was complicit in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, led Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. It was in Afghanistan where he met Osama bin Laden, and forged the bonds and led to the absorption of Egyptian Islamic Jihad into al Qaeda’s network, and his rise to power in the terrorist group.
Zawahiri is the pragmatist in al Qaeda. His experiences during his incarceration in Egypt after the Sadat assassination taught him to respect the power of the Middle Eastern rulers, and despite his acceptance of the intolerant Salafist worldview, he understands the need for the measured application of violence. His letter to Zarqawi shows his deftness in understanding the need to only commit acts of violence which will have a beneficial result. Zawahiri recognizes Zarqawi’s indiscriminate slaughter of Shiites and Sunnis alike is alienating the Iraqi people.
The death of Zawahiri would be a major psychological victory for the United States, as he has been targeted since the attacks on 9-11. Zawahiri’s own words in his recently released video tape would provide rich irony to his death; “you have to confess that you are defeated in Iraq, and you are defeated in Afghanistan and you will soon be defeated in Palestine, with Allah’s help.” It is difficult to argue al Qaeda is winning the war if its number two in command is killed in a nameless, meaningless town in the backwaters of Pakistan by an American missile strike.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.