Hunting Zawahiri and al Qaeda on the Border

Four days after the strike in the Pakistani border village of Damadola in the province of Bajaur, the status of Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s second in command, remains unknown. Zawahiri was purportedly invited to a dinner celebration for the Muslim holiday of Eid, but it is likely he sent senior aides to attend the dinner. A statement issued by the administration of Pakistan’s semi autonomous tribal regions indicates four or five of those killed in the strike were indeed “foreign terrorists” and that “between 10 and 12 foreign extremists had been invited to the dinner.” This refutes claims all of those killed were innocents. The identity of those killed has not yet been released, but will tell the intelligence services how close they may have come to bagging Zawahiri, if he did indeed escape.

Adnkronos International provides insight on the intelligence leading up to the strike and the intimate cooperation between U.S. and Pakistani intelligence agencies; “US intelligence officials had reliable information about a gathering of senior al Qaeda and Taliban commanders in Pakistan’s Bajour district and shared it with Islamabad before last Friday’s air strike… The catalyst for the CIA raid on Bajour Agency – news of which was supplied to Islamabad well in advance – was information gathered by a joint intelligence unit of Pakistani-US operators based in Islamabad, who exchanged hand-delivered notes, on a daily basis. The Islamabad unit provides a centralised daily monitoring report on Pakistan-Afghan border areas, based on information from Pakistani agencies nationwide. The US contributes report on al Qaeda and Taliban activities, and the security situation in the border provinces of Afghanistan.”

Damadola, PakistanThe strike in Damadola brought the underreported developments along the Afghan-Pakistani border to the fore. Adnkronos International also states the Kunar province of Afghanistan, which borders Bajaur, has “become a centre for al Qaeda members” and a route between Kunar and Chitral [in Pakistan] was disclosed by none other than Abu Farraj al-Libbi, who was captured in Pakistan last year. The route is believed to be “frequently used by leaders such as Osama bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and Afghan resistance leader Gulbadin Hikmatyar.” al-Libbi’s importance in al Qaeda and his knowledge of operations in Pakistan cannot be underestimated.

The political fallout from the strike against Zawahiri is still uncertain. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has scheduled a new conference on January 19th to address the issue, but has stated over the weekend Pakistanis cannot allow foreigners to seek refuge within the borders. Reuters reports that while there have been protests over the attack, “few have been sizable by Pakistani standards.” Secretary of State Condolezza Rice has promised the U.S. will “continue to work with the Pakistanis and we’ll try to address their concerns.”

Diplomatic and political posturing of the Pakistani government aside, U.S. and Pakistani intelligence agencies will continue the hunt for high value al Qaeda targets in Pakistan. Secretary Rice openly states as much. The risk of ending the operations for both the United States and Pakistan, and particularly President Musharraf, who has been the target of al Qaeda assassination attempts, is too great. Pakistan may not be the ideal ally in the War on Terror, but the problems Musharraf faces are very real, and require a sophisticate balancing act he has so far been able to manage.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.

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