More good news from Pakistan. ABC News is reporting that last week's Predator strike in the tribal region of northern Pakistan netted an Al-Qaida big fish afterall. Pakistani intelligence sources tell ABC that the terrorist organization's master bomb maker and chemical weapons expert, 52-year-old Abu Khabab al-Masri, was among those killed when a U.S. missile struck a building in the village of Damadola, near the Afghan border. Khabab, an Egyptian chemist, was one of at least three Al-Qaida figures who died in the attack. The strike was aimed at Al-Qaida's #2 man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who apparently decided not to attend a planned meeting in the village.
Among his "accomplishments," Khabab ran one of Al-Qaida's most notorious terrorist training camps, and personally trained hundreds of terrorists includng shoe bomber Richard Reid and the so-called "20th hijacker, Zacharias Moussaoui.
There's a certain sense of irony (and justice) in knowing that Osama bin Laden's top bomb man died in the blast from a Hellfire missile. We can also take satisfaction in the knowledge that we came very close to getting Zawahiri. Khabab and Zawahiri were close associates, and there are strong indications that Al-Qaida's #2 leader had plannned to attend the meeting.
As we noted previously, tracking these terrorist leaders to a specific location was not the work of Predator surveillance alone. There are growing indications that the U.S.--or another intelligence service--has penetrated the inner layers of Al-Qaida, and has much more reliable information on the activities/whereabouts of its senior leaders.
Unfortunately, Al-Qaida is capable of learning from its mistakes. After this near-miss, Zawahiri will likely "go to ground," review his communication and security practices, and take himself out of circulation for a while. We can only hope that we get another crack at Zawahiri before the trail goes cold again.
One final note: Khabab's death may also shed some light on that artillery shell that the NYT identified as remnants of the U.S. rocket. Khabab's presence, coupled with the artillery shell, suggests that the Hellfire may have destroyed an Al-Qaida bomb factory, or perhaps an IED training facility.