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Agence France Presse January 18, 2006

US hunt for Al-Qaeda leaders may be gaining: US analysts

US intelligence appears to be getting closer to top al-Qaeda leaders despite a seemingly hit-and-miss hunt that has left behind civilian casualties and bruised relations with allies, analysts say.

Pakistani officials said four or five "foreign terrorists" may have been among the dead in the latest action, a missile strike in a remote triabl area late Thursday or early Friday aimed at Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda's number two.

With 18 civilians also reported killed and Pakistani condemnations pouring in, the strike underscored the cost of a secret hunt that has so far failed to net either Zawahiri or Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

But analysts said a series of successful strikes by armed Predator drones controlled by the Central Intelligence Agency over the past two years point to a more disciplined effort than in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

"They are working on better intelligence, and they are not launching an attack like this unless they do have hard intelligence," said Vincent Cannistraro, a former chief of the CIA's counter-terrorism center.

With US officials refusing to comment on the missile strike, little is known publicly about what led US intelligence to the village of Damadola in the Bajur tribal area in northwestern Pakistan.

Pakistani officials said the strike was launched in response to intelligence that up to a dozen Al-Qaeda associates had been invited to a dinner at the village, possibly including Zawahiri.

However, it was unknown whether Zawahiri was there.

The bodies of the foreign militants were quickly removed from the scene by two local loyalists, Bajur's administrator Fajim Wazi said in a statement Tuesday.

"Clearly an attack like this is politically risky and there is always an element of risk of collateral damage, in some cases a very high level of risk," Cannistraro told AFP.

"And to do it it had to be on the basis that an important, high value target was there. I think that is the key to understanding why they did this one," he said.

"It's because they had intelligence which they believed to be concrete and solid that the number two in Al-Qaeda who is obviously a high priority for the CIA was going to be there," he said.

The site, which had been reliably reported to have been visited in the past by Zawahiri, was probably under remote surveillance for at least three days before the attack, he said.

So the CIA must have known that women and children not directly associated with al-Qaeda were present and at high risk, he said.

"That was kind of the trade-off," he said. "I think in this case the opportunity to get someone like the number two of the organization you've declared war on probably outweighed the concern about the collateral damage."

The CIA has blundered in the past, most notoriously in February 2002 when an armed Predator tracked and killed a tall man in white robes in Afghanistan in the mistaken supposition he was bin Laden.

But the Predator has filled a need to surreptitiously observe and suddenly strike a fleeting enemy.

"For destructive power it's about as precise as you can get with anything much bigger than a sniper rifle," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.Org, a group that gathers and analyzes information about the military.

The CIA appears to have used armed Predators only sparingly but with notable recent successes.

In November 2002, a CIA-controlled Predator fired a missile at a vehicle in Yemen, killing six people, including Ali Qaed Sunian Al-Harthi, a suspected ringleader in the October 2000 attack on the destroyer USS Cole.

Haith al-Yemeni, a top Al-Qaeda leader, was reported to have been killed in May 2005 by a missile fired by a CIA Predator in Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan.

His killing closely followed the capture of another senior Al-Qaeda figure, Abu Faraj al-Libbi in Pakistan.

In early December, Al-Qaeda's reputed number three, Hamza Rabia, was killed by a missile reportedly fired from a CIA Predator into a safehouse in the village of Asorai. Five people were killed in the attack.

Untouched until now, though, have been Al-Qaeda's two top leaders -- bin Laden, who has been silent for a year, and Zawahiri, who surfaces from time to time with video-taped statements.

They are very difficult targets, Cannistraro says.

"But they do move. Sometimes they use walkie talkies and other short range communications devices to signal that they are moving.

"I think that the intelligence gained very methodically is not just human intelligence," he said. "But the Pakistani's cooperation... is probably essential."


Copyright 2006, Agence France Presse