From Strategic Forecasting, Inc:
A Second Strike: Homing in on Al Qaeda Prime?
By Kamran Bokhari
It has been almost a month since the Oct. 31 airstrike against a madrassa in the village of Chingai in Pakistan's northwestern tribal belt. The objective of the U.S. operation was to eliminate a jihadist high-value target, presumably deputy al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. But there has been no videotaped message from the jihadist movement's No. 2 man, and this is unusual.
Seventeen days after the first strike in the area, which took place Jan. 13 in the village of Damadola (about a mile from the madrassa), al-Zawahiri appeared in a videotape and tauntingly remarked, "I will meet my death when God wishes. But if my time hasn't come, you and all the earth's forces can't change it, not even by a second. Bush, do you know where I am? I am among the Muslim masses enjoying their care with God's blessings and sharing with them their holy war against you until we defeat you, God willing."
It should also be noted that al-Zawahiri has maintained a steady flow of mostly video-taped communiqués for two years now, and the volume of such tapes has actually increased this year. Al Qaeda's top leaders have traditionally been so keen on keeping the world abreast of their status that when a major earthquake struck northern Pakistan in October 2005, killing as many as 100,000 people, al-Zawahiri issued a videotape 16 days after the quake to let everyone know the al-Qaeda leadership had not been affected by the temblor.
All of this raises the question: Why have we not heard from al Qaeda's principal theoretician since the Oct. 31 madrassa strike, which killed some 80 people? There are two primary possibilities:
1. Al-Zawahiri was killed in the airstrike, and it will be some time before we hear from either al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden himself or someone who has succeeded al-Zawahiri.
2. The strike on the madrassa hit very close to home and has sent shockwaves through al Qaeda's operational security system, which has forced al-Zawahiri to go deeper underground.
The first possibility seems unlikely for a number of reasons. First of all, had al-Zawahiri been killed, the jihadist communication network by now would have leaked the news of his death. We have seen this happen whenever a senior al Qaeda figure is killed. During the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in November 2001, when al Qaeda's first military chief, Mohammed Atef, was killed in a Hellfire missile strike by a CIA Predator drone in eastern Afghanistan, the jihadists acknowledged that Atef had been "martyred." More recently, in June 2003, al-Zawahiri himself issued a videotaped message mourning the killing of al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi some 16 days after al-Zarqawi's death.
Furthermore, all al Qaeda leaders killed thus far have been military commanders, regional leaders and senior operatives, and none of them have had the same stature as that of al-Zawahiri or bin Laden. In fact, there is no one in the jihadist network who can be considered equal to these two top leaders. Therefore, it would be very hard to hide the death of either one, even if U.S. intelligence could not confirm the killing.
While there has not been any tape released by al Qaeda following the Oct. 31 strike, there have been jihadist attacks in response to the madrassa strike. More than 40 Pakistani soldiers were killed Nov. 8 in a rare suicide bombing at an army training base in Dargai, a town about 60 miles north of Peshawar. This followed a Nov. 7 attack in which tribal militants fired rockets during North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) Gov. Ali Mohammed Jan Orakzai's visit to the town of Wana, in the tribal belt. A little over a week later, on Nov. 17, two policemen survived a suicide bomb attack against a police van in Peshawar.
It could be that the Oct. 31 missile strike has created technical obstacles to issuing video-tapes, which would explain why there has not been much output from As-Sahab, al Qaeda's media production arm, since the madrassa was hit. But given that As-Sahab's production facilities are unlikely to be located in the remote tribal badlands straddling the Afghan-Pakistani border, technical difficulties are not likely the case. The lack of a communiqué from al-Zawahiri is much more likely the result of a conscious decision to maintain radio silence because of a breach in al Qaeda's operational security net. In other words, al-Zawahiri has likely survived, and is trying to stay beneath the radar.
The strike in Chingai, while it did not eliminate al-Zawahiri, must have come very close to doing so. Al Qaeda views the location and timing of the madrassa strike as a penetration of the movements and schedules of al Qaeda prime. From al Qaeda's point of view (and probably in point of fact), U.S. and/or Pakistani intelligence has come very close to one of its inner concentric security perimeters. More significantly, al Qaeda at the time of the strike -- and this may still be the case -- did not know where this penetration had taken place. Therefore, it has brought its communications, especially its communication to the outside world, to a grinding halt. And it is going to maintain this posture until it identifies the security breach and seals it. This could be matter of weeks or of months. Once it is confident that it has re-established operational security, al Qaeda will resume releasing video communiqués.
Implications of the Madrassa Strike
Al Qaeda's move deeper underground shows that U.S. intelligence has come very close to triangulating the likely location of al Qaeda's global headquarters. Stratfor has said the districts of Dir, Malakand and Swat in Pakistan's NWFP are probably the areas in which al Qaeda's top leaders are hiding out. The Oct. 31 and Jan. 13 strikes were more or less in the same area, which borders both Dir and Malakand. This suggests that the Chingai-Damadola area is not just an al Qaeda rendezvous point but also a jihadist thoroughfare, especially since it is bordered to the east by Afghanistan's Kunar province, a hotbed of Taliban and al Qaeda activity.
Both strikes also indicate the problem U.S. forces face in conducting counterterrorism operations in Pakistan. While it is easy to engage in a land or air incursion a few miles into one of the seven agencies of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, it is much more difficult to do so in NWFP because it requires a much deeper incursion into more settled areas. This is something that Islamabad has yet to allow, and Washington continues to oblige.
The two airstrikes have provided U.S. intelligence with a wealth of information, which the United States can use to pinpoint not just the places frequented by al-Zawahiri and his associates but also his actual hideout, as well as other key al Qaeda facilities that probably lie much deeper in the NWFP. This poses a dilemma for al Qaeda, which does not have the luxury to simply shift from one location to another, and this would again explain the decision to go offline.
Al-Zawahiri's statement in the videotape issued after the first airstrike is actually quite telling: "Bush, do you know where I am? I am among the Muslim masses enjoying their care…."
Al Qaeda's leaders are likely hiding very close to if not in a heavily populated area that is quite far from the Afghan-Pakistani border. This is actually the best defense the jihadists have in their arsenal; they believe it is unlikely that U.S. forces would conduct a strike so deep inside Pakistan and in an area so densely populated.
ltimately, finding and hitting al Qaeda's top leaders depends not only on human intelligence but also on the willingness of the United States to accept the risks of carrying out strikes that can actually eliminate al-Zawahiri and bin Laden. The biggest risk, at this point, is the destabilization of the government of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
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