NBC News is reporting a significant victory in the War on Terrorism. An airstrike in the tribal lands of northern Pakistan has reportedly killed Moshin Musa Matawalli Atwah, an Egpytian who was known as one of Al-Qaida's top bomb makers. U.S. authorities had placed a $5 million bounty on his head, claiming that Atwah had trained the terrorist bombers who attacked U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing more than a dozen Americans, and hundreds of African nationals.
Atwah was apparently one of fourteen terrorists killed in today's air strike, but it's unclear who deserves credit for the operation. Pakistani officials claim the attack was carried out by one of its helicopter gunships, which targeted a building that housed the insurgents. However, local residents claim a U.S. Predator drone launched a Hellfire missile at the structure, killing the terrorists inside.
The competing claims are significant. A similar operation a few months ago also killed a key Al-Qaida bomb-maker, but it also strained relations between Washington and Islamabad. The reason? That strike was carried out by a Predator, but (officially) U.S. aircraft and drones aren't supposed to operate on Pakistan's side of the border. In reality, our UAVS frequently cross the border and the Pakistanis don't object, as long as that fact isn't heavily publicized.
Here's the likely scenario behind today's attack and the explanation: Atwah and his cohorts had likely been under surveillance by U.S. drones for some time. When the hit was ordered, the U.S. coordinated with Pakistan to have their helicopters operating in the same area. The Pak pilot was probably ordered to launch a missile and strafe the area after observing the Hellfire explosion. That secondary strike served a two-fold purpose: eliminating any terrorists emerging from the rubble, and offering some measure of cover for both Washington and Islamabad.
Pakistan has a limited number of U.S.-made attack helicopters (AH-1 Cobras), but they are equipped with older, TOW missiles, not the more advanced Hellfire. And, since the U.S. does not "push" Predator video into the cockpit of Pakistan's attack helos, the Pakistani crew would have to be briefed on which target to fire on (in advance) if they launched at all. Video from the target area will probably indicate whether the building was struck by a single missile (probably a Hellfire), or by missiles from the drone and the helicopter.
Today's operation highlights improved cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistan, including its p.r. aspects. U.S. officials are referring media queries on the attack to their Pakistani counterparts, who ensure reporters that 'we were responsible." Both sides clearly want to avoid another situation like the previous Predator strike, which exposed U.S. operations, and left Pakistan President Musharaff in an embarassing position.
About the time that Atwah became eligible for his vigin quota, Al-Qaida's #2 man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, appeared in a new video. In the tape, Zawahiri praises terrorist fighters in Iraq, and their leader, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. The tape appears "new" only in the sense that it hasn't been previously aired. Some of the references in the tape suggest it was recorded last November. That may suggest that either Zawahiri is more reluctant to leave his hiding place (he was the target of the previous Predator strike that killed several of his associates) or that Al Qaida is having a harder time getting its message out. In either case, that's good news, as is the demise of Atwah.