ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) – An al-Qaeda explosives and chemical weapons expert and a relative of the terror network’s No. 2 leader were among four top operatives believed killed in a U.S. missile strike in Pakistan last week, Pakistani security officials said Thursday.
Pakistani authorities have said four or five foreign militants were killed in last Friday’s attack in Damadola, a village near the Afghan border. Officials say the airstrike targeted, but missed, al-Qaeda No. 2 leader Ayman al-Zawahri. It also killed 18 local people, outraging many in this Islamic country.
The security officials, all speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media, named four al-Qaeda figures thought to have been in the village at the time of the attack, saying that their bodies were believed to have been taken away by sympathizers.
They included Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar 52, an Egyptian, cited by the U.S. Justice Department as an explosives expert and poisons instructor who trained hundreds of mujahedeen at a terrorist camp in Afghanistan near the eastern city of Jalalabad before the ouster of hard-line Taliban regime in late 2001.
The department’s Web site says that the exact whereabouts of Umar, also known as Abu Khabab al-Masri, are unknown but that he may be residing in Pakistan, and offers US$5 million for information leading to his arrest. It says that since 1999, Umar has distributed training manuals with recipes for crude chemical and biological weapons.
According to experts on Islamic extremists, Umar is believed to have trained the suicide bombers who killed 17 U.S. sailors on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. According to the officials, among the other foreigners possibly killed were Abu Obaidah al-Masri, the al-Qaeda chief responsible for attacks on U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan who was based in Kunar province, across the border from the strike site; and Abdul Rehman al-Maghribi, a Moroccan and relative of al-Zawahri, possibly his son-in-law.
A Pakistani official said al-Maghribi was involved in public relations for al-Qaeda and helped distribute statements, CDs and videos publicizing the group. In particular, al-Maghribi had contacts with Arab journalists and kept them abreast of al-Qaeda news, he said.
Some of the officials also named a fourth man, Khalid Habib, the al-Qaeda operations chief along the Afghan-Pakistan border. The officials referred to him as the most senior figure believed killed, saying he’d planned assassination attacks on Pakistan’s President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and was associated with Abu Farraj al-Libbi, a top al-Qaeda figure arrested in northwestern Pakistan in May.
All the officials stressed that none of the militants’ bodies have been found. “We do not have any evidence to prove that they have been killed, but we have indications that they were there and were among those bodies that were taken away,” the official said, refusing to give further details.
Pentagon officials said they had no information on the reported identities of the dead, and CIA spokesman Tom Crispell said the agency could not comment. Pakistan’s Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said the government believed some foreigners had been killed, but authorities had not found the bodies so had not conducted DNA tests that would confirm the identities.
Pakistani Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao, who was in New York with visiting Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, said the bodies may have been taken by a local pro-Taliban cleric, Maulana Faqir Mohammed, who also is being hunted by authorities.
Provincial authorities said sympathizers took the bodies of four or five foreign militants to bury in the mountains, thereby preventing identification. Shah Zaman Khan, director-general of media relations for Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, said authorities were seeking Faqir Mohammed and another pro-Taliban cleric, Liaqat Ali, accused of harboring militants.
Both were allegedly in Damadola and survived the assault. Intelligence officials say al-Zawahri is thought to have sent some aides in his place to an Islamic holiday dinner to which he’d been invited in Damadola the night of the attack.
Hours after the strike, an Associated Press reporter visited the village, which consists of a half-dozen widely scattered houses on a hillside about seven kilometers (four miles) from the Afghan border.
Residents said all the dead were local people and that no one had removed bodies. However, it appeared feasible bodies or wounded could have been spirited away in the darkness after the attack, which took place about 3 a.m. Pakistan maintains it wasn’t given advance word of the airstrike, reportedly carried out by unmanned Predator drones flying from Afghanistan. It condemned it as killing innocent civilians.
Thousands have taken to the streets in protest, denouncing the U.S. and Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who ended Pakistan’s support of the Taliban regime in late 2001 and has himself been targeted by al-Qaeda attacks.