Pakistani television reported July 29 that a U.S. airstrike in northwestern Pakistan had killed al Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Such rumors have surfaced before, but it is not yet clear whether they can be dismissed this time around.
A Pashtu-language Pakistani television channel has reported that deputy al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed in a July 28 U.S. airstrike on a madrassa in the Pakistani tribal belt along the Afghan border, sources informed STRATFOR on Aug. 1. AVT Khyber TV quoted unnamed sources in its July 29 news broadcast as saying that al-Zawahiri was among three Arabs killed in a strike against the seminary in Zeralita village in the Azam Warsak area of South Waziristan agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The channel also interviewed an official from the Pakistani army's Inter-Services Public Relations directorate who said the military was aware of the incident but could not confirm the report. Meanwhile, U.S. officials said the strike likely killed al Qaeda weapons expert Abu Khabab al-Masri, but said they do not have confirmation. Al-Masri was thought to have been killed in the January 2006 airstrike on a facility in the village of Damadola in the FATA's northernmost agency of Bajaur. One of the reasons why confirmations on the alleged killing of both men have been difficult to obtain is that, shortly after the strike, Taliban militants took custody of the bodies and dealt with those who were injured. In a related development, Pakistan's Frontier Corps (FC) — the principal paramilitary organization responsible for security in the tribal areas — vacated the Ladha Fort in the South Waziristan agency on July 31. FC Inspector General Maj. Gen. Mohammad Alam Khattak said the fort was converted into a 20-bed hospital after tribal elders requested a medical facility, but denied reports that it was done at the "demand" of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Baitullah Mehsud. Since Pakistani security forces do not really have control of the area, however, it is very likely that the FC moved men and material out of the facility under pressure from the militants — who, sources have told STRATFOR, needed a facility to treat a top al Qaeda leader. Sources also said that the missile strike took place at a time when an important meeting involving jihadists from both sides of the border was under way and that al-Zawahiri was invited to attend the gathering by a senior Pakistani militant leader. The sources added that the strike was the result of intelligence-sharing between Pakistani and NATO forces. STRATFOR's position has long been that the apex al Qaeda leadership is not in the tribal belt given the security risks, and is more likely to be hiding out in the more settled areas of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). It is also unlikely that al-Zawahiri would be traveling, especially at a time when there has been an escalation of U.S. airstrikes and into the FATA. There have been earlier rumors of al-Zawahiri's death, most notably after the January 2006 Predator strike in Bajaur, on the opposite end of the FATA from South Waziristan. Given the distances involved, it is possible that he could have traveled to Bajaur from his likely hiding place in the NWFP (though even if he was there, he was not killed in the January 2006 attack), but it is extremely unlikely that he would take the security risk of traveling as far as South Waziristan. The last time al-Zawahiri appeared in a video message was in February; however, he has issued around half a dozen audio recordings since then. At this stage, it is very difficult to say whether al-Zawahiri or al-Masri or another al Qaeda leader was killed in the July 28 strike. It is interesting, however, that there have been no denials from the United States, Pakistan or the jihadists (though we have heard rumors of a possible pending announcement by the United States). At the moment, it appears the Khyber TV report should not be dismissed as just another rumor.