Washington -- A U.S. airstrike on a suspected al -Qaida compound in a remote area of Pakistan targeted Osama bin Laden's second-in-command, U.S. officials said yesterday. They are were investigating the possibility that the Egyptian militant was been killed, they said.
The CIA and other U.S. counterterrorism agencies would not comment officially on speculation that Ayman Zawahiri was among a handful of suspected senior al-Qaida militants killed in the airstrike near the Afghan border early yesterday. Nor would they say on the record whether U.S. warplanes or unmanned Predator drones had dropped precision-guided missiles onto suspected terrorist hideouts in the area, as reported by Pakistani officials and witnesses.
The Pakistanis said at least 18 people were killed and six wounded in the attack.
A senior U.S. counterterrorism official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, said a compound attacked was known to be frequented by Zawahiri and other high level al-Qaida operatives, and that Washington was told by Pakistani military sources that Zawahiri might have been among those killed.
The official said U.S. authorities had been monitoring the location for months in hopes of striking at Zawahiri. Predator drones were sent in to kill him when intelligence indicated he was there, he said.
The official said it was too early to tell whether Zawahiri or any other significant al-Qaida operatives were killed. But he said official reports out of Pakistan were encouraging and that U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism authorities were viewing them with unusual optimism.
The official acknowledged that Zawahiri's death has been reported erroneously from time to time. "There is something different about this one," the official said. "This seems to have validity."
It was the second such strike on targets inside Pakistan within a week. Pakistan lodged a strong protest with U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan recently, saying cross-border firing in the nearby Waziristan area last weekend had killed eight people.
The U.S. counterterrorism officials said Washington was awaiting more information from Pakistan expected after daybreak today. Depending on the condition of the bodies, he said, it could take several days to identify them.
For years, Zawahiri and bin Laden were inseparable, according to several U.S. counterterrorism officials. But they are thought to have been separated for some time, in part to make it harder for their pursuers to kill them both at the same time. The U.S. counterterrorism official said it was unlikely that they were together yesterday.
Josh Meyer and and Zulfiqar Ali write for the Los Angeles Times