Security forces backed by helicopter gunships killed several suspected militants near the Afghan border in an airstrike sparked by intelligence that Al Qaeda operatives were hiding out in the area, Pakistani officials said Thursday.
The officials said the principal target of the strike by Pakistani forces was Muhsin Musa Matwalli Atwah, an Egyptian member of Al Qaeda suspected of being involved in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Those blasts killed more than 200 people, including 12 Americans, and prompted Washington to offer a $5-million reward for Atwah’s capture.
It was unclear late Thursday whether Atwah was one of the suspected militants who died in the attack in the village of Anghar in Pakistan’s volatile North Waziristan region. The helicopters fired missiles and dropped bombs late Wednesday on a compound believed to be sheltering both foreign and Pakistani militants, leveling two mud-brick houses and killing nine people, including at least one child, residents said.
Pakistani Information Minister Sheik Rashid Ahmed told the Reuters news agency that Atwah was among the dead, but Pakistani military sources would not confirm the statement.
“I can’t say [anything] about the presence or killing of any senior Al Qaeda man in the operation,” said Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, an army spokesman. He said, however, that “information about Al Qaeda people” in the region had triggered the attack.
A senior military officer said the intelligence came from 19 militants who surrendered to security forces after a face-off in North Waziristan this month. The militants told interrogators the arms they had used in an attack on a Pakistani security post were given to them by Atwah.
Residents of Anghar, a hamlet about four miles from Miram Shah, North Waziristan’s chief hub, said a man in their village who appeared to be of Arab descent was known to be commanding militants in the area. Sources said Atwah was believed to be staying with four other foreigners in a part of the compound reserved as a guest house.
In addition to reducing the suspected hide-out to rubble, the helicopters destroyed two vehicles laden with weapons that were parked inside the compound, residents said.
Atwah was indicted by a federal grand jury in New York along with 21 other Al Qaeda members, including Osama bin Laden, in connection with the attacks on the embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He was one of more than a dozen militants accused of orchestrating the bombings, which caused U.S. officials to beef up security at diplomatic missions.
Many of those indicted remain fugitives.
In Washington, one of the FBI’s lead officials involved in investigating the embassy bombings said Thursday that Atwah was known as one of Al Qaeda’s most experienced and deadly explosives technicians -- not just in the 1998 attacks but in plots afterward as well.
“This was not some guy with a few Bunsen burners,” said the agent, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss ongoing counter-terrorism activities. “He was extremely intelligent and extremely good at his craft. So if he has been killed or otherwise removed from the battlefield, Al Qaeda has lost one of their preeminent bomb makers.”
If true, the agent said, “it is as big a victory as we could ask for. You take away the bomb maker, and you disrupt plots. His handiwork resulted in the deaths of more than 200 people and 5,000 injuries in a single day.”
The agent said Atwah built both of the bombs used in the 1998 attacks, which occurred almost simultaneously but hundreds of miles apart. He said Atwah traveled from Kenya to Tanzania to participate in both plots, and that one of the photos on the FBI’s “most wanted” flier of Atwah was the one he had used on his visa entering Tanzania from Kenya in the weeks before the attacks.
A second FBI agent who also has been involved in the hunt for the indicted embassy bombing co-conspirators said Thursday that the agency had “no independent confirmation” of Atwah’s death. The second agent also requested anonymity.
Another alleged conspirator in the East Africa blasts, a Tanzanian named Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, was arrested in Pakistan two years ago after a shootout with authorities in the eastern city of Gujrat. The U.S. had offered a $25-million bounty for Ghailani’s capture.
U.S. and Pakistani officials say that the rugged border region that straddles Pakistan and Afghanistan is a nest of Al Qaeda operatives who went into hiding after the overthrow of Afghanistan’s hard-line Taliban regime by U.S.-led forces in 2001. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, a key U.S. ally in the battle against terrorism, has pledged to root them out and has deployed tens of thousands of troops along the border.
A number of heavy clashes have erupted in the area in the last month. A helicopter strike similar to Wednesday’s killed a senior Al Qaeda commander in North Waziristan in December.
Times staff writer Chu reported from New Delhi and special correspondent Ali from Peshawar. Times staff writer Josh Meyer in Washington and special correspondent Mubashir Zaidi in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.