The Jan. 29 airstrike against a Taliban safe house in Pakistan’s North Waziristan may have targeted two senior al Qaeda leaders, the Pakistani press is reporting. The airstrike was carried out by US forces in Afghanistan and killed 13, according to local tribesman in the town of Khushali Tari Khel near Mir Ali on the Pakistan-Afghan frontier. Seven Arab members of al Qaeda and six Central Asian operatives were reported killed in the attack. The targets of the strike may have been al Qaeda leaders Abu Laith al Libi and Abu Obaidah al Masri.
Anonymous Pakistani intelligence officials said, based on reports from local tribesmen, that foreign al Qaeda fighters were killed in an attack by US forces from Afghanistan. “This compound was targeted on intelligence intercepts that it was used by foreign al Qaeda militants,” a senior security official told AFP. “After intercepts it was struck by a missile from across the border. Seven Arabs and six central Asians were killed.” Other villagers claimed a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle launched missiles during the nighttime attack.
The compound was owned by Abdus Sattar, who Dawn described as a “driver.” Sattar is reported to have survived the strike. The Taliban have surrounded the attack site to keep outsiders away. “Militants are still keeping the local people away from the place,” a villager told Dawn. The Arabs and Central Asians have been buried in a local cemetery, which will allow a forensics team to identify the remains if they can find the graves.
Two senior al Qaeda leaders, Abu Laith al Libi and Abu Obaidah al Masri, were believed to be the targets of the strike, The News reported. A Taliban spokesman denied the al Qaeda leaders were the location of the attack. One of al Libi’s deputies may have been killed in the strike.
Abu Laith al Libi is a military commander in Afghanistan and also serves as an al Qaeda spokesman. Abu Obaidah al Masri is al Qaeda’s operations chief for the Kunar, Afghanistan. Kunar is a strategic hub for al Qaeda operations in the northeast. Obaidah was thought to have been killed in the January 2006 airstrike on a compound in the Bajaur, Pakistan tribal agency.
At that time, anonymous Pakistani intelligence officials told US officials that claimed six senior al Qaeda operatives were killed in the attack. Pakistani intelligence claimed Midhat Mursi al Sayid Umar (Abu Khabab), al Qaeda’s WMD expert; Abdul Rahman al Maghribi, Zawahiri’s son-in-law and an al Qaeda military commander; Marwan al Suri, the Waziristan operations chief; Khalid Habib, the commander of southeastern Afghanistan commander; Abd al Hadi al Iraqi, a member of al Qaeda’s military committee; and Obaidah were killed in the missile attack. The Washington Post reported almost two years later that they had, in fact, survived the attack. Abd al Hadi al Iraqi was captured while trying to enter Iraq in April 2007.
US and Pakistani covert operations in the tribal belts have had limited success over the past two years. A series of airstrikes and a few ground strikes from early 2006 onward has yielded only two mid-level al Qaeda operatives: Imam Asad, the chief trainer of the Black Guard, and Mohsin Matawalli Atwa, one of the architects of the 1998 attacks on the US Embassies in eastern Africa.
The North Waziristan attack occurred just as the Taliban and the government is preparing to sign a new peace accord. The Pakistani government and US Department of Defense have neither confirmed nor denied the airstrike took place.