Late reports from Pakistan indicate that today's strike against a madrassa in Chingai was aimed at Al Qaida's #2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. At least 80 terrorists were killed in the strike, which was carried out by Pakistani attack helicopters. NBC News producer Mushtaq Yusufazi, who was in the area at the time, says the Madrassa had long been a hotbed for Al Qaida, with the school's director (who died in the attack) imploring the locals to support the terrorist organization and its Taliban allies.
If Zawahiri was, indeed, the intended target, it represents the second near-miss against the Al Qaida leader in less than a year. In early 2006, a U.S. Predator drone struck a suspected terrorist safe house along the Pakistan-Afgan border, where Zawihiri was supposedly eating dinner. Zawahiri reportedly cancelled his plans at the last moment, but several of his top aides died in the strike. The attack suggested that the U.S. had obtained better intelligence on Zawahiri's whereabouts, and the almost-successful attack likey drove him further underground.
What's most interesting about this strike is that it occurred just weeks after border tribes--who generally support Al-Qaida and the Taliban--had apparently reached a peace deal with the Pakistani government. That accord was seen as a victory for the terrorists, who could continue to operate with relative ease in the border region, with less fear of attack from Pakistani troops.
But once again, the terrorists proved to be their own worst enemy. While it received little attention in the western press, was another assassination attempt earlier this month on the life of Pakistani President Musharraaf. The effort was crude (and almost certainly doomed to fail), but it caught the attention of the President, who reportedly launched a new purge of his military and intelligence services, and authorized today's strike in the border region. For more details on the assassination attempt (and its aftermath), Bill Roggio's 18 October post is required reading.
Better yet, renewed cooperation from the Pakistanis--and the removal of more Al Qaida sympathizers from the ISI--may yield better intelligence for us, and result in another shot at Zawahiri. The terrorist leader seems to have more lives than a proverbial cat, but sooner or later, his luck is bound to run out, and yesterday's failed assassination attempt may yet prove to be the fatal mistake that sealed Zawahiri's fate, particularly if good intel can be gleaned from the rubble of the Madrassa.
Mr. Yusufazi's presence in the area during the attack was no accident. While the NBC producer thought he was going to cover the "armistice" between border tribes and the Pakistani government, I'm guessing that the government used that line to get him in the vicinity, knowing that he would cover the strike--and that his report would quickly reach American audiences. With recent talk about a truce between the Pakistan government and the terrorists, Musharraf's stock had plummeted in Washington. NBC's near-instant coverage of the attack gave Musharraf a convenient mechanism for quickly getting his message to the White House.