The American Predators, which on January 13 rained missiles on Damadola village in the Mohmand sub-division of the Bajaur Agency in the Federally-Administered Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, missed their target by three days.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Special Correspondent in Pakistan reports:
They hit the right place but their target, Al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader, Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, had been and gone by January 10. Therefore all the 13 bodies buried in the village after three houses were razed belonged to civilians.
How US intelligence came to miss its primary target is explained in a tangled tale.
It is related here by the Pakistani intelligence circles which work in tandem with the American intelligence investigators stationed in the country. They report that the ex-chief operations commander of Al Qaeda, Abu Faraj Libbi, who was arrested by the Pakistani authorities in the Mardan division of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) in May 2005 – and was subsequently handed over to the United States – enjoyed sanctuary with the Mohmand tribe in the Mohmand sub-division of the Bajaur Agency in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.
Libbi further disclosed to his American interrogators that Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri were constantly on the move between the neighboring Kunar province of Afghanistan and the Mohmand sub-division of Pakistan’s Bajaur Agency.
The Mohmand are an ancient ethnic Pashtun tribe which lives on both sides of the Pakistani-Afghan border. The tribesmen are known to be imbued with a fierce “jihadi spirit,” contempt for Western culture and a history of fighting foreigners undefeated which they claim goes back to Alexander the Great.
Today, their sub-division is the stronghold of a pro-Taliban, pro-Al Qaeda Wahabi Muslim organization called the Tehrik Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), which means the Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Laws.
This way-out organization was banned by General Pervez Musharraf on January 12, 2002, for its alleged Al Qaeda links. Its chief, Maulana Sufi Mohammad was arrested and he is still behind the bars
The TNSM membership includes a large number of retired and serving personnel of the Pakistan Army belonging to the Bajaur and other agencies of the FATA. The other six are Khyber, Kurram, Orakzai, Mohmand, North Waziristan and South Waziristan. All have ethnic and historical ties with fellow Pashtuns in Afghanistan and all obey their own rather than Pakistani federal laws.
Libbi gave the Americans the Mohmands pointer
After Abu Faraj was captured, American intelligence agencies narrowed their stepped-up hunt for the most wanted Al Qaeda leaders by focusing on the lands of the Mohmand Agency of southeast Pakistan, which lies north of the Khyber Pass and is bounded by Afghanistan to the west. They strengthened their electronic intelligence resources in neighboring Afghanistan, recruited local smugglers, many of whom came from the same tribe, and mounted special operations on the Pakistan side.
The US agents wanted to find out how Zawahiri’s audio and video messages were being recorded and transmitted to Arabic Al Jazeera TV and other channels.
(The US air strike was in fact executed exactly seven days after Al Jazeera aired a videotape in which Osama bin Laden’s lieutenant challenged President George W. Bush to admit defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Six days later, an audiotape of Osama bin Laden in person was aired by the same TV station for the first time in a year. )
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources disclosed that the Americans, in ordering the Damadola raid, acted on human intelligence provided by local informers in the Baujar Agency.
There is a standing arrangement for locally-based US intelligence units to derive this data from the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). But American agents no longer trust their ISI colleagues. They have therefore hired serving and former Pakistani intelligence officials for undercover work on their behalf in the tribal areas of Pakistan. These hired men sub-contract local informers who pass on information for pay.
That was how US intelligence came by the information that the Egyptian surgeon Zawahiri had been paying visits to the Bajaur Agency for about a year. One of his wives is a Mohmand woman. She and their children live with her father in the border area between the Bajaur Agency and the Mohmand tribal region. The local hired informers had been doing their best to keep an eye on the movements of al Qaeda’s No. 2 in recent months and reported that, after a long absence, he was due to visit his wife and in-laws for the Eid al Adha festival.
They also disclosed that an important top-level meeting was scheduled for January 13 to coincide with the Muslim feast. It was to be a get-together of fugitive Taliban and al Qaeda leaders in the Bajaur Agency to chart their next campaign.
This tip-off prompted the lofting of three CIA Predator drones over the marked venue some days ahead of the meeting in order to carry out reconnaissance and target-marking.
A carefully engineered escape
Zawahiri had by then arrived in Damadola. It was this reconnaissance mission which seems to have alerted him to his danger. When he spotted the drones, he quickly showed a clean pair of heels. This was three days before the Hellfire rockets struck the village.
The local informers working for the Americans had contracted to confirm his death if the hit was successful. But like most double agents, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terror sources add, these informers must be presumed to have more than one allegiance and therefore word of the target’s escape from the scene did not reach the Americans in time to prevent the attack or apprehend Dr. Zawahiri in mid-flight.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s correspondent quotes intelligence sources on the Egyptian terrorist chief’s travel support system.
Himmaytullah Khan, who holds dual Afghanistan-Pakistan nationality, organized the escape of Dr Zawahiri and party. As chief coordinator of the al Qaeda-Taliban summit in Damadola, he took charge of their flight from the village to a safer spot after the US Predators were spotted.
The Americans have already asked the Pakistani authorities for custody of Himmaytullah Khan, believing he possesses critical information about Zawahiri and bin Laden and their movements.
Two local clerics were also expected for the terror strategy conference, Maulvi Faqir Mohammad and Maulvi Mohammad Liaqat. Both are wanted for harboring foreign militants.
The host of the festive gathering was Maulana Noor Muhammad, an active member of a pro-Taliban militant organization called Tehrik-e-Sharea-al-Jihad, which is headed by Maulana Shoaib Mansoor, the son of late Maulavi Nasrullah Mansoor, who won fame as commander of the force which fought alongside the Taliban in the battle against the pro-US Northern Alliance troops after the American invasion of Afghanistan.
Tehrik-e-Sharea-al-Jihad also fought the Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan up to the 1980s. This extremist organization claims to have contributed 70,000 “martyrs” to the “Afghan jihad”.
Maulana Shoaib Mansoor has drawn on his late father’s prestige as his political heir to become the primary source of inspiration for all the anti-US jihadist elements in the Pakistan-Afghan tribal belt. Since the fall of Kabul in October 2001, Shoaib has been in active contact with the elusive Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar.
Sure of their target, the CIA allowed the attack to go forward against three houses in the foothills of Damadola village, about 25km to the northeast of Bajaur Agency regional headquarters in Khar.
Our sources say the missiles were deadly accurate; they not only struck the right houses but homed in on the large rooms traditionally set aside by Pashtun tribesmen for guests. Pakistani intelligence reports that Zawahiri himself may have lodged in one of those rooms before he slipped back into Afghan territory, accompanied by six of his most trusted Afghan escorts and bodyguards.
Afghan-based US chiefs want more Pakistani cooperation
The victims were mostly women and children, members of the same extended family headed by Abdul Ghafoor. Most own small jewelry shops in Inayat Qala, a town three kilometers away from Damadola. They earn enough to build solid homes of cement, which were nonetheless flattened by the blasts, their roofs blown off. At least four children missing and listed dead after the attack later crept out of nearby homes where they had taken refuge.
This lowered the final death toll to 13.
The presence of foreigners among the dead is an open question.
After their initial flat denials, Pakistan officials as the week wore on began to concede that outsiders may have been there and their bodies removed, but would not confirm they belonged to al Qaeda operatives. It is not clear if the change in tone stemmed from new facts coming to light or outside pressure.
Wednesday, January 18, the US media reported four dead foreigners, admitting that their bodies had not been recovered.
They were identified as Abdul Rehman Al-Misri al Maghribi, a son-in-law of al Qaeda’s second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahri; another was Midhat Mursi al Sayid Omer, an expert in explosives, dirty bombs and chemical warfare. Known also as Abu Khebab, he carried a $5 million US reward on his head.
The third man named was Abu Obaidah al Misri, al-Qaeda's chief of operations in Afghanistan's eastern Kunar province.
Pakistani intelligence sources say one of the presumably dead al-Qaeda leaders Midhat Mursi is married to a Pakistani woman; their elder son Hamza Mursi, 16, was arrested and extradited to Egypt in January 2004. However, they never had any idea where the father was.
Earlier, a statement from Faheem Wazir, the political agent of the Baujar Agency in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, said “at least four foreign terrorists died in the US missile strike in a Pakistani border village” and between 10 and 12 foreign extremists were invited to the dinner there on the night of the US air attack.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly registers the sense gained in Pakistani intelligence of the growing impatience of Afghanistan-based US security chiefs with the failure of the Pakistani military and intelligence to flush out al Qaeda and the Taliban from the lawless tribal areas.
They say that Al Qaeda and the Taliban elements sneak unopposed into Afghanistan from Pakistani tribal areas, carry out attacks against coalition and Afghan forces and then return to Pakistani safe areas. They say that, because Pakistani security forces are seen to be withholding full cooperation with the US forces in sealing the border to terrorist incursions and failing to pick up wanted high-value Qaeda leaders, the CIA finally decided to go solo and send its Predator aircraft January 13 to unleash Hellfire missiles at targets tagged by its own informers.