There have been a lot of conflicting statements and a fake photo designed to suggest that that the Damadola strike was clumsy and ineffective in getting the target and that anger in Pakistan and innocent victims were the principal result of the effort. But the fog is clearing. It appears that this was a well— conceived joint US—Pakistani intelligence operation which was very effective.
A Pakistani official who is unnamed in the story gives us some detail:
Ayman al—Zawahri, the apparent target of the U.S. attack Jan. 13, met his deputy, Abu Farraj al—Libbi, in Damadola last year, the security official said.
Al—Libbi, a Libyan, had confessed to Pakistani interrogators after his capture in May 2005 he met al—Zawahri at Damadola, near the Afghan border, earlier in the year. Al—Libbi was captured after a shootout in another remote hamlet in northwestern Pakistan.
Another high—ranking intelligence official confirmed al—Libbi's account of the meeting, which took place a few months before his arrest. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
"His statement was later verified and we were able to confirm that al—Zawahri visited Damadola," the first official said.
The home was among three destroyed in the pre—dawn airstrike Jan. 13, which killed 13 villagers.
U.S. and Pakistani intelligence — with the aid of local tribesmen and Afghans — began monitoring the home after al—Libbi's confession, the officials said.
This was a well—surveilled site. And the intelligence apparently sound. I think Zawahiri died in that operation . Either we know this and are keeping it quiet for operational reasons or his was one of the four or five bodies reportedly removed from the site by unknown persons to preclude a solid identification without which it would be imprudent to announce he was killed.
Captain Ed Morrisey analyzed the last apparently rather old audio tape by Zawahiri just released. Like me, he thinks Zawahiri died there and that his post—strike taped message was a eulogy.
It would seem that the intent of posting this recording could be to reassure AQ agents that the chief of operations still lives, and that he intends to continue in the fight. It could also just be a random tape that someone wanted to post for its message, its call to martyrdom.
However, it could be something else entirely; it could be a eulogy for a martyred leader. The selection of Zawahiri reading a poem of martyred warriors sounds a bit too coincidental, especially given the circumstances of the missile attack.
A quick review: the CIA gets intel that Zawahiri and several high—level AQ leaders will meet to discuss plans for a spring offensive in Afghanistan in a compound in Damadola. In at least two separate attacks, Hellfire missiles blow up three of the buildings in the compound, killing a number of people. At first, the Pakistanis tell the US that all of the dead were civilians, a family of jewelers —— but we find out that at least five bodies got immediately carted away by "foreigners" before anyone could get a chance to see them. We then find out that at least three of the dead were indeed high—level AQ operatives ... who showed up even after Zawahiri decided not to come?
Why would they show up to a planning meeting if the decision—maker had canceled out?
And were the three people identified as having been killed really so important that their bodies could not be left behind for identification?
Now, a couple of weeks afterward, we have a tape of Zawahiri recalling martyrs by name, but not those who died in Damadola, and giving a poetry reading extolling the virtues of martyrdom by referencing battles long since past. It sounds quite a bit like an Islamist giving Zawahiri an opportunity to eulogize himself.
Saturday's report from the Times(UK) adds to my suspicion that Zawahiri was killed in the strike and his body removed to make forensic proof of his death impossible:
Officials from two different Pakistani intelligence agencies claimed Zawahiri had been with the group attending the feast, and that he was there to give support to al—Masri, who was planning to marry a local woman.
'Since it is the tradition that the prospective groom will not propose to the prospective bride himself, al—Masri was represented by Zawahiri who acted as his guardian as per Islamic tradition,' said one of the officials.
The woman was a 30—year—old widow with a seven—year—old son. Her husband was a mujaheddin who had been killed fighting with the Taliban shortly after the American—led coalition ousted the Islamic regime, the sources said.
The terrorists' bodies were spirited away for burial by local sympathisers. They have yet to be recovered for checks that might confirm their identities.
I certainly don't know if Zawahiri is dead. And I do not criticize the Pakistani or U.S. authorities for suggesting he wasn't killed in the absence of forensic proof.
But it is clear as the fog lifts that this was not a clumsy U.S. military gaffe, but rather a joint operation which further cripples al Qaeda whether or not Zawahiri escaped to a deep cover in an area where there is a great deal of surveillance and interdiction taking place.
Clarice Feldman 1 23 06