U.S. airstrikes in Pakistan killed some top al-Qaeda

Published: Thursday, January 19, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 18, 2006 at 11:31 p.m.
Two senior members of al-Qaeda and the son-in-law of al-Qaeda's No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, were among those killed in the U.S. airstrikes in remote northeastern Pakistan last week, two Pakistani officials here said Wednesday.
The bodies of the men have not been recovered, but the two officials said the Pakistani authorities had been able to establish through intelligence sources the names of three of those killed in the strikes, and maybe a fourth. Both of the officials have provided reliable information in the past, but neither would be named because they were not authorized to speak to the news media.
U.S. counterterrorism officials declined to say whether the four Qaeda members were killed in the raid, or whether the men were among those who were the targets of it. But one U.S. official said, "These are the kinds of people we would have expected to have been there."
If any or all were indeed killed, it would mark a stinging blow to al-Qaeda's operations, said the U.S. officials, who were granted anonymity because they were not authorized by their agencies to speak for attribution. They said all four of the men named by the Pakistani officials were among the top level of al-Qaeda's inner circle of leadership.
The Pakistani officials agreed that the deaths would be a strong setback to al-Qaeda in Pakistan's tribal areas, but acknowledged hundreds of foreign militants may still be at large in the region.
The airstrikes, which killed 18 civilians, among them women and children, have caused anger across the country, particularly in the restive and autonomous tribal regions, and forced the government to condemn the intrusion by U.S. warplanes.
Some Pakistani officials and opposition politicians have accused Pakistan's government of inventing the presence of foreign militants in the area to mitigate the political fallout. But Pakistani security officials have been consistent in their comments and appear increasingly confident of their information.
At least one of the men believed by the Pakistani officials to have been killed, an Egyptian, known here as Abu Khabab al-Masri, is on the U.S. most-wanted list with a $5 million reward for help in his capture. His real name is Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar, 52. According to the U.S. government Web site www.rewardsforjustice.net, he was an expert in explosives and poisons.
Abu Khabab, the Web site states, operated the Qaeda camp at Darrunta, near Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, and trained hundreds of fighters. He was responsible for writing a training manual with recipes for crude chemical and biological weapons, the Web site states.
Among those Abu Khabab trained was Abu Zubaydah, al-Qaeda's No. 3 operative, who was captured in 2002 in the Pakistani town of Faisalabad, one of the Pakistani officials said. Another Egyptian, known by the alias Abu Ubayda al-Misri, was also believed killed, the Pakistani officials said. He was the chief of insurgent operations in the southern Afghan province of Kunar, which borders Bajaur in Pakistan, the area where the airstrikes occurred, according to one of the Pakistani officials.As chief of operations, Abu Ubayda commanded attacks on U.S. forces in his part of southern Afghanistan, and trained the insurgent groups active in the area. He also served as a liaison for senior Qaeda leaders, and provided logistics and security for the top Qaeda people in the region, the official said. After the fall of the Taliban, Abu Ubayda moved to the Pakistani town of Shakai, in South Waziristan, but left the area when the Pakistani military mounted operations against the foreign militants there in February 2004, the officials said
The third man believed to have been killed was a Moroccan, Abd al-Rahman al-Maghrebi, who is the son-in-law of al-Zawahri, the officials said. Maghrebi was in charge of Qaeda propaganda in the region, and may have been responsible for distributing a number of computer CDs showing the activities of Taliban and Qaeda fighters in southern Afghanistan in recent months.
A fourth man, Mustafa Osman, another Egyptian and an associate of al-Zawahri's, may also have been killed, one Pakistani security official said. But he was less certain of his fate. There may have been one or two more foreign militants killed as well, he said.
One of the U.S. officials said another senior Qaeda figure, identified as Khalid Habib, may have been at the site of the attack. His name was circulating among Pakistani officials as someone who might also have been killed, though again they were uncertain.
Habib has been al-Qaeda's overall operational commander in Pakistan and Afghanistan, an important post, and would be the most significant of those who might have been at the site of the attack, which occurred in the village of Damadola, about 3:15 a.m. last Friday. After an initial investigation into the strike, Pakistani provincial authorities said in a statement on Tuesday that 10 to 12 foreign militants were believed to have been invited to a dinner in the village on the night of the Jan. 13 strike.
The target of the raid, U.S. officials have said, was al-Qaeda's No. 2, al-Zawahri, but they have acknowledged that he was not killed in the attack, and Pakistani officials say that al-Zawahri failed to show up for the dinner that night.
The statement from Pakistani provincial authorities said that four or five bodies were taken from the wreckage of the bombing quickly after the strikes, and secretly buried somewhere in the mountains.
One of the men who died with his family in the wreckage of his home, Bakhtpur Khan, was named by a Qaeda operative, Faraj al-Libi, as a sympathizer, one of the Pakistani officials said. Libi, who was captured in Pakistan last summer, told an interrogator that he had met al-Zawahri in Khan's house in Damadola previously, the official said. It is unlikely that al-Zawahri was in the house at the time of the bombing, because he would have been accompanied by a larger entourage, one of the Pakistani officials said. Villagers, many of whom are sympathetic to Taliban and Qaeda elements, continue to insist there were no foreign militants in the village at the time of the airstrikes.
Al-Arabiya television reported that al-Zawahri was alive, quoting a member of al-Qaeda, in the days after the strike. A news agency in Afghanistan, Pajhwok Afghan News, has also reported that a Qaeda member telephoned the agency to say that al-Zawahri was safe.
The news agency identified the caller as Ahmad Solaiman, a Moroccan who serves as a spokesman for the group. In a Jan. 18 dispatch, the agency quoted him saying that "al-Zawahri is alive. Reports about his death are false."
A U.S. counterterrorism official said the claim was being viewed with skepticism, because al-Qaeda usually chooses more mainstream outlets to issue public statements.
A Pakistani security official said soon after the strikes that he was confident that al-Zawahri had survived.

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