The Associated Press reports on three US attempts to kill or capture Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s second-in-command. All three near-misses took place in northwestern Pakistan: the first in the city of Peshawar in 2003, the second in the tribal agencies of South Waziristan in 2004, and the third in Bajaur in 2006. Note that there hasn’t been a report of a near-miss since January 2006. Here are the details from the AP report on the raids:
The CIA had its first chance on Feb. 28, 2003. Former intelligence officials say al-Zawahiri met that day in a car with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-professed mastermind of 9/11 attacks, in Peshawar. Al-Zawahiri, a former official said, was on his way to the remote northern tribal region.
The former officials say the CIA was pursuing Mohammed at the time, but did not have a fix on him until an informant sent a text message to a CIA handler the next day that he was in Rawalpindi, about 110 miles to the east. Pakistan’s spy service, which was working with the CIA, moved in and captured Mohammed.
By then, al-Zawahiri was gone.
The next chance to target al-Zawahiri came in mid-March 2004, former officials said. A detainee in U.S. custody passed along information about a possible al-Qaida hideout in the mountainous northwest Pakistani region of South Waziristan, where government troops, helicopters and planes were mounting a military offensive against militants.
The CIA passed the intelligence to the Pakistan military, which bombed the village of Azam Warzak near the Afghan border. The former U.S. officials said they later received reports that al-Zawahiri was at the scene during the bombing and suffered minor injuries.
[T]he CIA thought it had another chance to target al-Zawahiri on January 13, 2006. The CIA had received a tip their target was headed to a gathering of top al-Qaida operatives in the town of Damadola in the Bajaur region. Al-Zawahiri reportedly had met with al-Libi a year earlier in Bajaur_ where locals had also pinpointed the terrorist leader after the 2004 bombing.
A former senior CIA official familiar with the episode said all the “intelligence signatures” pointed to al-Zawahiri’s arrival that day. Former CIA Director Porter Goss gave a green light to launch a drone missile strike, the former senior official said. Goss declined comment through a spokeswoman.
The drone strike obliterated a mud compound, killing eighteen people, provincial officials said, including several al-Qaida figures and a dozen civilians.
But al-Zawahiri was not among them. Pakistani intelligence officials said at the time that he was invited to the dinner but decided instead to send several aides. The CIA initially thought the strike had missed the terrorist leader by an hour, but a current U.S. official recently acknowledged al-Zawahiri never showed up.
A few quick observations
1) The Bajaur attack is well-documented. Pakistani intelligence reported that six senior al Qaeda operatives were killed in a US airstrike in Damadola, Bajaur, in January 2006. The six operatives reported killed were: Abu Khabab al Masri, the WMD committee chief and senior bomb maker; Khalid Habib, a senior military commander in eastern Afghanistan who later became chief of al Qaeda’s paramilitary Shadow Army; Abd Rahman al Masri al Maghribi, Zawahiri’s son-in-law and a military commander; Abu Obaidah al Masri, al Qaeda’s 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 months later, The Washington Post reported that all of the al Qaeda commanders had survived the strike.
Four of the six later were killed or captured, or died of natural causes. Abd al Hadi al Iraqi was captured while attempting to enter Iraq in late 2006. Abu Obaidah al Masri died of natural causes sometime in late 2007 or early 2008. Abu Khabab al Masri was killed in an airstrike in July 2008. Khalid Habib was killed in an airstrike in October 2008.
2) The attack on Zawahiri in Azam Warzak in South Waziristan is interesting but not surprising. The town is under the control of Mullah Nazir, who is viewed by the Pakistani govenment as a “good Taliban” leader despite the fact that he shelters al Qaeda leaders and sponsors attacks in Afghanistan.
The US killed one of al Qaeda’s top commanders in Azam Warzak during the summer of 2008. A Predator attack killed Midhat Mursi al Sayyid Umar, a senior al Qaeda commander who is better known as Abu Khabab al Masri, along with four members of his staff. Khabab was a senior bomb maker and chief of al Qaeda’s weapons of mass destruction program.
3) The AP report gives a brief but accurate description of al Qaeda’s operational security and the Black Guard, the praetorian bodyguard for bin Laden, Zawahiri, and other select top leaders:
One key to locating al-Qaida’s upper echelon, former U.S. officials said, is cracking the crude but effective communications network linking the fugitive terrorists. The system uses a chain of human couriers ensuring no one messenger interacts with either bin Laden or al-Zawahiri.
A Taliban operative who filmed one of al-Zawahiri’s messages told AP that both bin Laden and al-Zawahiri rely heavily on Arabs instead of locals for security.
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