U.S. Strike On Al Qaeda Top Deputy Said to Fail

Pakistani tribesmen march to protest the U.S. airstrike in Damadola, northwest of Islamabad, that targeted al Qaeda's deputy leader, Egyptian-born Ayman Zawahiri. Government officials conceded foreigners may have been in the area.
Pakistani tribesmen march to protest the U.S. airstrike in Damadola, northwest of Islamabad, that targeted al Qaeda's deputy leader, Egyptian-born Ayman Zawahiri. Government officials conceded foreigners may have been in the area. (By Ali Imam -- Reuters)
By Griff Witte and Kamran Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 15, 2006

KABUL, Afghanistan, Jan. 14 -- Pakistani officials said Saturday that a U.S. missile strike intended to kill al Qaeda deputy Ayman Zawahiri had missed its target but had killed 17 people, including six women and six children.

Tens of thousands of Pakistanis staged an angry anti-American protest near the remote village of Damadola, about 120 miles northwest of Islamabad, where Friday's attack took place. According to witnesses, the demonstrators shouted, "Death to America!" and "Death to Musharraf!" -- referring to Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf -- and the offices of at least one U.S.-backed aid organization were ransacked and set ablaze.

In Washington, U.S. intelligence sources said it was too early to know whether the strike had killed Zawahiri, 54, an Egyptian physician who is al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's top aide. "The outcome of this doesn't seem decided," said a source who spoke on condition of anonymity.

U.S. officials defended the strike, saying it was the right course of action based on timely intelligence about Zawahiri's whereabouts early Friday. Zawahiri had been under surveillance by the CIA for two weeks, security sources said.

The CIA, which military and intelligence sources say carried out the attack with a type of unmanned aircraft called a Predator, declined to comment Saturday.

Local authorities denied that any foreigners had been present in the area.

"We can say with full authority that those who were killed were all innocent permanent residents of the village Damadola," said Sirajul Haq, senior minister of Pakistan's North-West Frontier province. "Any independent probe would confirm that no foreigner was in the vicinity of the neighborhood targeted by the U.S. missiles."

Two officials with Pakistan's military intelligence service confirmed the local leaders' assessment. The Pakistani government in Islamabad, however, produced a more muted response, saying it had formally protested the strike to the U.S. government but conceding there may have been people in the area whom the United States would have an interest in attacking.

The strike was the latest in a series aimed at al Qaeda fugitives believed to be hiding in the region along Pakistan's porous and largely lawless border with Afghanistan.

After al Qaeda carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, U.S. forces and Afghan militias toppled the Afghan Taliban movement, which had sheltered and supported bin Laden's organization. Bin Laden, Zawahiri and many other al Qaeda leaders are believed to have crossed the border and taken refuge in Pakistan's tribal regions, where they have eluded capture.

At the same time, Pakistani security services have apprehended several key al Qaeda operatives in the country's teeming cities. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, reputed to have planned many of the organization's terrorist attacks, including those on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, was captured in Rawalpindi in March 2003. The previous September, the reputed coordinator of the Sept. 11 attacks, Ramzi Binalshibh, was captured in the port city of Karachi.

Zawahiri, who is considered by many to be al Qaeda's principal strategist, has released several videotapes in which he has urged Muslims worldwide to join a holy war against the United States. In a video released Jan. 6, he suggested President Bush's decision to reduce U.S. troop strength there constituted a victory for al Qaeda in Iraq.


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