US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal are highly skeptical of an unconfirmed report in the The New York Times that claimed senior al Qaeda operative Khalid Habib was killed in the Oct. 16 airstrike in South Waziristan.
The airstrike occurred in the town of Sam near Makeen, the home town of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud. Six people, including two Arabs, were said to have been killed in the strike. But Pakistani intelligence was unable to reach the scene of the attack to assess the strike as the region is in the heart of Taliban territory and Taliban forces secured the attack site.
A “former militant” told The New York Times that Habib was the target of the strike. Habib “was in a parked Toyota station wagon, a favored vehicle of the militants in the tribal area, when he was hit by the missile,” the newspaper reported.
But parts of the report raise questions about the veracity of the The New York Times‘ source. The former militant said Habib fled the South Waziristan town of Wana as US forces were striking at the Haqqani Network based there. But the Haqqanis are based out of North Waziristan, primarily in the Miramshah region. Taliban commander Mullah Nazir is based out of the Wana region South Waziristan.
US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal said the information from Pakistan is unreliable, but did not rule out the possibility that Habib was killed.
“The source is suspect,” an official said, referring to the “former militant” in The News York Times report. “Why would some former Taliban or al Qaeda operative have this information? And if he was killed, why hasn’t al Qaeda announced his death?” Al Qaeda and the Taliban typically release a martyrdom announcement when senior operational leaders are killed to notify the network and aid in recruiting.
The report may also be an attempt to throw US intelligence off of Habib’s trail. “It is possible this is a denial and deception campaign,” one official said, referring to a technique used to confuse an opponent to allow them to escape the battlefield and evade surveillance. A similar technique was used by al Qaeda to allow Osama bin Laden to the cordon around Tora Bora in 2002.
Habib serves as the commander of al Qaeda’s paramilitary forces in Pakistan’s tribal areas. This responsibility would place him in charge of al Qaeda’s notorious 055 Brigade and the other Arab and foreign brigades that have formed in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
He has been described as “one of the five or six most capable, most experienced terrorists in the world.” But he is not al Qaeda’s “fourth-ranking person in the Qaeda hierarchy,” a senior US military intelligence official told The Long War Journal.
“The numbering of al Qaeda leaders beyond Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri is wrong,” the source said. The numbering of al Qaeda leaders “it was done at a time when we didn’t understand the group,” the source said, explaining that senior leaders share responsibilities and the network is not hierarchical in nature.
Pakistani sources are suspect
There have been numerous reports of senior al Qaeda and Taliban leader killed in US airstrikes and Pakistani military operations this year, but few of them have proven true.
Since January 2008, ten senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, including Ayman al Zawahiri and Baitullah Mehsud, have been reported to have been killed inside Pakistan. Of those reported killed, only three have been confirmed killed.
All three al Qaeda leaders were killed in US cross-border strikes, not in Pakistani offensive operations. Six of the leaders who were reported killed by Pakistani sources have appeared in the media or on al Qaeda propaganda tapes. Only Habib has yet to be accounted for.
Interestingly enough, Pakistani intelligence reported Habib was one of six senior al Qaeda operatives killed in a US airstrike in Damadola in January 2006. Also reported killed were: Abu Khabab al Masri, the WMD committee chief and senior bomb maker; Abd Rahman al Masri al Maghribi, Zawahiri’s son-in-law and a military commander; Abu Ubeidah al Masri, the external operations chief and commander in Afghanistan’s Kunar province; Marwan al Suri, the Waziristan operations chief; and Abd al Hadi al Iraqi, the external operations chief who also served as a commander in southwestern Afghanistan.
Nineteen month later, The Washington Post reported that all of the al Qaeda commanders survived the strike. Three of the senior al Qaeda leaders reported killed in the Damadola strike were either killed, captured, of died of natural causes at a later date.
Abd al Hadi al Iraqi was captured while trying to enter Iraqi in the fall of 2006. Abu Ubeidah al Masri died of natural causes earlier this year. Abu Khabab al Masri was killed in a US airstrike in South Waziristan in July 2008.
A senior US military intelligence official is highly critical of the information coming from Pakistan. “We don’t put much stock in Pakistani sources these days,” the official said. “Until we confirm it, or al Qaeda issues a martyrdom statement, it is a rumor.”
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Oct. 5, 2008
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