Watch CBSN Live

4 Top Qaeda Operatives Believed Dead

An al Qaeda explosives and chemical weapons expert and a relative of the terror network's No. 2 leader were among four top operatives believed killed in a U.S. missile strike in Pakistan last week, Pakistani security officials said Thursday.

Pakistani agents continued their hunt for two pro-Taliban clerics who dined with the operatives the night of the airstrike, hoping to glean new details about the attack and who was killed.

The authorities have said four or five foreign militants died in last Friday's attack in Damadola, a village near the Afghan border. Officials say the airstrike targeted, but missed, al Qaeda No. 2 leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. It also killed 18 local people, outraging many in this Islamic country.

The security officials, all speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media, named four al Qaeda figures thought to have been in the village at the time of the attack, saying that their bodies were believed to have been taken away by sympathizers.

They included Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar 52, an Egyptian, cited by the U.S. Justice Department as an explosives expert and poisons instructor who trained hundreds of mujahedeen at a terrorist camp in Afghanistan near the eastern city of Jalalabad before the ouster of hard-line Taliban regime in late 2001.

The officials say Faqir Mohammed and Liaqat Ali were likely responsible for burying, and concealing, the bodies.

Mohammed reportedly returned near the scene of the attack in Pakistan's tribal region two days later to lead an anti-U.S. protest.

"The government is actively hunting for them," said a senior government official with high-level access to information on the Damadola attack.

"Once we have them in custody, more will definitely be revealed" about that night, said the official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the investigation.

The U.S. Justice Department's Web site says that the exact whereabouts of Umar, also known as Abu Khabab al-Masri, are unknown but that he may be residing in Pakistan, and offers US$5 million for information leading to his arrest. It says that since 1999, Umar has distributed training manuals with recipes for crude chemical and biological weapons.

According to experts on Islamic extremists, Umar is believed to have trained the suicide bombers who killed 17 U.S. sailors on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000.

According to the officials, among the other foreigners possibly killed were Abu Obaidah al-Masri, the al Qaeda chief responsible for attacks on U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan who was based in Kunar province, across the border from the strike site; and Abdul Rehman al-Maghribi, a Moroccan and relative of al-Zawahiri, possibly his son-in-law.

A Pakistani official said al-Maghribi was involved in public relations for al Qaeda and helped distribute statements, CDs and videos publicizing the group. In particular, al-Maghribi had contacts with Arab journalists and kept them abreast of al Qaeda news, he said.

Some of the officials also named a fourth man, Khalid Habib, the al Qaeda operations chief along the Afghan-Pakistan border. The officials referred to him as the most senior figure believed killed, saying he'd planned assassination attacks on Pakistan's President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and was associated with Abu Farraj al-Libbi, a top al Qaeda figure arrested in northwestern Pakistan in May.

The war on terror has forced al Qaeda to decentralize, experts say. Isolated on the remote Afghan-Pakistan border, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri remain powerful symbols for followers but are probably unable to direct operations around the world.

CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reported the deaths would not cause al Qaeda to collapse, but could seriously damage the network's command structure. U.S. officials say al Qaeda command has been using the remote Pakistan frontier as a sanctuary from which to plan and launch operations.

Pakistan has recently sent its own army to clear foreign fighters out of the border area, but U.S. intelligence concluded the operations were making little headway. So, in recent weeks the CIA has opened a new campaign of airstrikes by unmanned drones whenever it gets reliable intelligence on the whereabouts of al Qaeda leaders, Martin reported.

"It's a very significant blow to al Qaeda," said Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore. "These are very experienced leaders and to replace them in the short term will be very difficult."

In addition to Umar, the biggest casualty could be Habib. Pakistan officials accuse him of planning two assassination attempts on Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf in 2003.

"You can say he's the No. 3 leader," Gunaratna said. "As the chief operations officer, he decides who gets hit and when."

Assadullah Wafa, governor of Afghanistan's Kunar region bordering the area around Damadola, said it would seriously damage morale.

"I can't imagine there will be any retaliatory strikes," he said. "They will regroup and then keep a low profile to make sure they're not hit again."

Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general, said the combined loss of four top operatives would keep al Qaeda on the defensive in Afghanistan and away from the planning board.

"They have fewer and fewer hiding places," Masood said. "People should be more hesitant to give them sanctuary."

Masood predicted the U.S.-led coalition would nevertheless step up military actions in the region to keep the pressure on al Qaeda, regardless of public opposition in Pakistan.

"They will not be deterred by negative fallout," he said. "They think it's just collateral damage."

But the U.S. attack has strained its ties with Pakistan, a key ally in the war on terror. Pakistan has nabbed over 700 al Qaeda suspects in the past four years, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in America.

The U.S. government will not officially confirm that these CIA airstrikes are taking place, Martin added. While the Pakistani government protests against them, they are conducted with Pakistani approval.

Pakistan maintains it wasn't given advance word of the airstrike, reportedly carried out by unmanned Predator drones flying from Afghanistan.

It condemned it as killing innocent civilians.