WASHINGTON—A CIA-controlled unmanned aircraft fired a missile Friday into a compound just inside Pakistan's border with Afghanistan after the CIA received intelligence that Osama bin Laden's top lieutenant and other senior al-Qaida members were inside, U.S. intelligence officials said.
At least 17 people were killed, but it couldn't be immediately confirmed if al Qaida's No. 2 leader, Ayman Zawahri, or other top members of the Islamic terrorist network were among them, or were even present at the time, the officials said.
The officials said that killing Zawahri or bin Laden would be a "major victory in the war on terror," as one put it, but they acknowledged that it probably wouldn't cripple al-Qaida or significantly reduce the threat of new terrorist attacks. The reason, they said, is that terrorist cells now operate independently rather than on orders from bin Laden or Zawahri, and that Iraq has become a new training ground for Islamic extremists.
The U.S. intelligence officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the operation was top secret and they weren't authorized to discuss it.
A CIA spokesman declined to comment.
The attack targeted a compound in the remote village of Damadola, about four miles from the border with Afghanistan, after intelligence indicated that Zawahri and other top al-Qaida operatives were there, said the intelligence officials.
The operation was carried out by a CIA-controlled Predator surveillance aircraft armed with a Hellfire air-to-ground missile, a method the spy agency has used in the past to kill "high-value" terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen and Iraq.
The agency is believed to operate a few dozen Hellfire-equipped Predators.
Video shot by the Predator during the attack in Damadola, which is also about 125 miles southeast of the Pakistan capital of Islamabad, indicated that 17 people were killed in the strike, said the intelligence officials.
News reports from Pakistan confirmed that an attack took place and quoted local officials as saying that 18 people, including women and children, were killed.
Zawahri, a physician who led Egyptian Islamic Jihad and then merged it with bin Laden's network, is considered al-Qaida's top ideologue.
U.S. officials believe that Zawahri, bin Laden and other al-Qaida members have been hiding among friendly Pashtun tribes on the rugged Afghan-Pakistan border since the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
Gen. Pervez Musharaf, Pakistan's military ruler, has deployed some 70,000 troops on his side of the border in a bid to capture al-Qaida members and fighters from the Taliban, the Islamic militia that harbored bin Laden until it was driven from power by the U.S.-led intervention.
There have been reports of U.S. special forces and aircraft making forays across the frontier to hunt down al-Qaida members, but Pakistan denies that such operations have taken place.
Zawahri increasingly has become the public face of the terrorist network, appearing in videotapes sent to Arab television news stations.
In his most recent videotape, aired on Jan. 6 by the Al-Jazeera television network, Zawahri claimed that President Bush's decision to reduce the U.S. military presence in Iraq by about 7,000 troops was a victory for radical Islamic fighters.
"Bush, you have to admit that you have been defeated in Iraq, that you are being defeated in Afghanistan, and that you will be defeated in Palestine soon with God's help and strength," he said in the tape.
Bin Laden hasn't been heard from, in either a videotape or audiotape, for more than a year.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040318 PAKISTAN Zawahri
ARCHIVE PHOTO on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Zawahri
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