U.S. intelligence officials are feeling some sense of vindication today after a Pakistani tribal leader acknowledged that last week's hellfire missile attack on the village of Damadola near the Afghanistan border killed four, maybe five foreign militants. For nearly five days villagers had claimed that only innocent civilians, including some women and children, had been killed when three CIA Predator drones struck three separate targets.
At the same time, those officials now say it appears highly doubtful that the airstrike killed the ultimate target in the attack, Osama Bin Laden's top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. They expect by the end of the week, al-Qaida will release at least an audio if not videotape of Zawahiri thumbing his nose at the U.S. and condemning the U.S. for killing innocents.
And despite earlier reports that the FBI would compare Zawahiri's DNA to human tissue samples recovered from the attack site, U.S. officials now tell NBC News they have no tissue samples to test. According to one U.S. official, "We'd have to go into a clearly hostile area and start digging up graves. That's just not going to happen."
So if Zawahiri wasn't killed, who was? U.S. counterterrorism officials claim those killed were high-level members of al-Qaida, some Egyptians, with especially close ties to the Egyptian-born Zawahiri. The officials expect the Pakistani government to publicly identify those al-Qaida members within the next several days.
This attempt to kill Zawahiri is the latest in a recent string of attacks against suspected al-Qaida and Taliban targets in the remote and rugged reaches of western Pakistan by both the CIA and the Pakistani military. While this increasingly aggressive campaign has scored some modest victories within the past couple of months, Zawahiri's apparent escape and the deaths of civilians will most certainly provide added ammunition for America's enemies in the region.