PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) – Al-Qaeda’s second-in-command met his deputy last year at a house hit in a recent U.S. missile strike in which at least four of the terror network’s operatives may have died, Pakistani intelligence officials said Saturday.
Ayman al-Zawahri, the apparent target of the Jan. 13 attack, met his deputy, Abu Farraj al-Libbi, in Damadola early last year, a security official said on condition of anonymity, adding that Libyan-born Al-Libbi told Pakistani interrogators of the meeting after his capture in May 2005.
“His statement was later verified, and we were able to confirm that al-Zawahri visited Damadola,” the official said. “We have intelligence reports that Ayman al-Zawahri visited the house of one Bakhtpur Khan months before what happened last week.”
Al-Libbi, once al-Qaeda’s No. 3 leader, is accused of masterminding two attempts to assassinate Pakistan’s President Gen. Pervez Musharraf for making the Islamic nation a key ally of the United States in its war on terror. After his arrest in Pakistan, he was turned over to Washington for further investigations.
Khan’s house was among three destroyed in the Jan. 13 pre-dawn airstrike that has caused widespread anger in Pakistan. Khan is listed among the 13 villagers who died. U.S. and Pakistani intelligence, helped by tribesmen and Afghans, began monitoring Khan’s home after the al-Libbi confession, the officials said.
Pakistani authorities suspect al-Qaeda operatives had gathered last week in Damadola, near the Afghan border, to eat dinner and plan attacks to be carried out early this year in Afghanistan and Pakistan, another intelligence official said.
The officials, all speaking on condition of anonymity due to the issue’s sensitivity, said at least four foreign militants also may have died in the attack, including al-Qaeda explosives and chemical weapons expert Midhat Mursi and a son-in-law of al-Zawahri. The United States is offering a US$5 million (¤4.14 million) for Mursi.
“Their bodies were taken by Faqir Mohammed to a nearby house and then were shifted to an undisclosed location,” said one official, referring to a local pro-Taliban cleric, also understood to be at the dinner.
As many as a dozen al-Qaeda extremists may have gathered for the dinner, which began soon after sundown, but some of them left before the strike was launched at around 3:10 a.m., another security official said. Another wanted terrorist, Abu Suleman, is also thought to have escaped, one of the officials said. Authorities accuse Suleman, who is believed to be Algerian, of plotting attacks in Pakistan and say he twice narrowly avoided capture in the past two years.
Pakistani and U.S. officials have reportedly said that the Egyptian-born al-Zawahri skipped the meeting and was not killed in the attack.
An Islamic Web site released a tape from al-Zawahri Friday, but U.S. officials said the tape could have been made much earlier. Al-Zawahri did not discuss the Damadola attacks in his comments, but praised the “martyrs of holy war” in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.
Pakistani authorities have released conflicting statements about the airstrike in recent days. Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said Friday there was no “tangible evidence” that any extremists had gathered in Damadola, while Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed and provincial authorities earlier confirmed the presence of “foreign terrorists” in the area on the night of the attack.
On Saturday, Musharraf protested the attack to visiting U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, a foreign ministry official said on condition of anonymity. Musharraf told Burns that “what happened in Bajur must not be repeated,” according to the official, though Musharraf also pledged to continue to helping Washington in war on terror.
Aziz also said his nation stands behind the United States. “As regards the relations between Pakistan and the United States, or our conviction about fighting terrorism, there is no question that Pakistan is one of the countries which has done the most because we believe terrorism is no solution to any problems,” he said.
Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal, or United Action Forum, an opposition Islamic coalition, has organized a series of anti-U.S. demonstrations across the country to protest the airstrike, including a massive rally in Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier Province where Damadola is located.
Pakistani authorities have arrested more than 700 al-Qaeda suspects, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and Ramzi Binalshibh, all alleged planners of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.