Tragically, the agency thought it had its best chance last year at a secret base in Afghanistan, but instead fell victim to a double agent’s devastating suicide bombing.
The CIA missed a chance to nab Ayman al-Zawahri in 2003 in the northwest Pakistani city of Peshawar, where he met with another senior al Qaeda leader who was apprehended the next day, several current and former U.S. intelligence officials said.
The fugitive Egyptian doctor also may have narrowly survived a bombing by Pakistani military planes in 2004, the former and current officials said. And a well-publicized U.S. missile strike aimed at him in 2006 failed because he did not turn up at the attack site, they said.
Targeting al-Zawahri - along with bin Laden - is a main goal of U.S. counterterror efforts, which are focused on a man who has retained control of al Qaeda’s operations and strategic planning even as he has led an underground existence in Pakistan’s rugged tribal border zone.
“Finding senior al Qaeda terrorists - at a time when we’re pursuing the most aggressive counterterrorism operations in our history - is of course a top priority for the CIA,” said agency spokesman George Little.
But unlike bin Laden, a cipher since the Sept. 11 attacks who has surfaced only in occasional taped statements, al-Zawahri has kept a higher public profile and taken risks that expose him more frequently.
He is known to travel cautiously and he regularly issues audio and video harangues that are scrutinized closely for clues, said the current and former officials, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the classified hunt for the al Qaeda leader.
The CIA’s pursuit of al-Zawahri climaxed last December in the suicide bombing that left seven agency employees dead at the agency’s eastern Afghanistan base in Khost, one of the worst U.S. intelligence debacles in recent decades.
The bomber turned out to be an al Qaeda double agent who had lulled U.S. intelligence into believing he could bring them closer to al-Zawahri. Part of the terrorist’s bait was his claim that al-Zawahri suffered from diabetes - a revelation about his health, if true.
A blunt internal inquiry raked the CIA in October for failing to properly vet the double agent in the months before the bombing and suggested its preoccupation with al-Zawahri may have led to lapses in judgment. One person familiar with the inquiry said the agency’s zeal to get to al-Zawahri was a “significant driver” behind the mistakes, a conclusion even CIA Director Leon E. Panetta acknowledged.
“That’s what this mission was all about,” Mr. Panetta said. “It was the opportunity that we all thought we had to be able to go after No. 2.” He added that “in some ways maybe the mission itself clouded some of the judgments that were made here.”
“We felt like we did at times come very close to getting him,” said a former senior U.S. official familiar with the targeting efforts. “We had more [intelligence] and we had better confidence in it.”
Former intelligence officials say both bin Laden and al-Zawahri take elaborate precautions, keeping their distance from each other to ensure that al Qaeda’s top leadership would not be eliminated in a single strike.
Bin Laden, 53, is believed to be hiding near the border between Pakistan’s lawless tribal regions and Afghanistan. Al-Zawahri, 59, appears to have spent time in Pakistan’s northwest tribal region of Bajaur, populated by large numbers of Wahabi Islam followers.
Both men are believed wary of using cell or satellite phones. But al-Zawahri has tried at times to make contact with family members in Egypt, former intelligence officials say. More important, he has remained in the public eye with numerous messages.
According to the private SITE Intelligence Group, bin Laden has made 23 audio and one video tape since 2006. Al-Zawahri has outpaced his superior, making 37 audio and 22 video recordings in the same period. In al-Zawahri’s latest audio recording, issued Nov. 4, he warned the U.S. that “we will fight you until the last hour.”
Each time al-Zawahri speaks, he increases the chances that the U.S. could zero in on him. The CIA scours his recordings for clues, the former officials said, sifting for signs that might indicate how long it takes al-Zawahri to receive information about current events he cites.
“It tells us about information flow,” said Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation.
Despite the risks he takes, al-Zawahri has always been able to keep several steps ahead of his pursuers.
The CIA had its first chance on Feb. 28, 2003. Former intelligence officials say al-Zawahri met that day in a car with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-professed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, in Peshawar. Al-Zawahri, a former official said, was on his way to the remote northern tribal region.
The former officials say the CIA was pursuing Mohammed at the time, but did not have a fix on him until an informant sent a text message to a CIA handler the next day that he was in Rawalpindi, about 110 miles to the east. Pakistan’s spy service, which was working with the CIA, moved in and captured Mohammed.
By then, al-Zawahri was gone.
Mohammed was flown to a CIA black site in Poland and interrogated using harsh methods, including waterboarding, which simulates drowning. Mohammed admitted he had met with al-Zawahri but would not disclose the details, a former CIA officer said.
The next chance to target al-Zawahri came in mid-March 2004, former officials said. A detainee in U.S. custody passed along information about a possible al Qaeda hideout in the mountainous northwest Pakistani region of South Waziristan, where government troops, helicopters and planes were mounting a military offensive against militants.
The CIA passed the intelligence to the Pakistan military, which bombed the village of Azam Warzak near the Afghan border. The former U.S. officials said they later received reports that al-Zawahri was at the scene during the bombing and suffered minor injuries.
Pakistani military spokesman Gen. Athar Abbas would not confirm the reports, but noted recently that “these were the times when the two intelligence agencies were working hand in glove.”
Taliban operatives and Pakistani civilians told the AP recently that al-Zawahri was injured in the attack. The al Qaeda leader then spent three days in the town of Mir Ali in north Waziristan before heading north to Bajaur, said the militants and locals, all of whom insisted on anonymity for safety reasons.
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