Al-Qaida’s second-in-command attended a meeting last year at the home that was hit by U.S. missiles last week in a strike believed to have killed at least four of the terror network’s operatives, Pakistani intelligence officials said Saturday.
The latest revelation came a day after thousands of Pakistani protesters took to the streets, chanting “Death to America” and calling for holy war as outrage persisted over the airstrike that devastated a remote border village.
Ayman al-Zawahri, the apparent target of the U.S. attack Jan. 13, met his deputy, Abu Farraj al-Libbi, in Damadola last year, the security official said.
Al-Libbi, a Libyan, had confessed to Pakistani interrogators after his capture in May 2005 he met al-Zawahri at Damadola, near the Afghan border, earlier in the year. Al-Libbi was captured after a shootout in another remote hamlet in northwestern Pakistan.
Another high-ranking intelligence official confirmed al-Libbi’s account of the meeting, which took place a few months before his arrest. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
“His statement was later verified and we were able to confirm that al-Zawahri visited Damadola,” the first official said.
The home was among three destroyed in the pre-dawn airstrike Jan. 13, which killed 13 villagers.
U.S. and Pakistani intelligence — with the aid of local tribesmen and Afghans — began monitoring the home after al-Libbi’s confession, the officials said.
Pakistani authorities suspect al-Qaida operatives had gathered last week at Damadola to plan attacks early this year in Afghanistan and Pakistan, when the meeting was torn apart by U.S. missiles, another intelligence official said.
Officials, all speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, believe at least four foreign militants also may have died, including an al-Qaida explosives and chemical weapons expert and a son-in-law of al-Zawahri.
The Egyptian-born al-Zawahri was believed to have skipped the meeting and was not killed.
Al-Libbi, once al-Qaida’s No. 3 leader, twice tried to assassinate Pakistan’s President Gen. Pervez Musharraf for making the Islamic nation a key ally of the United States in its war on terrorism. After his arrest in Pakistan, he was eventually turned over to Washington for further investigation.
Despite the widespread protests calling for Musharraf’s ouster following the Jan. 13 missile attack, Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said his nation stands behind the United States and its fight against terrorists.
“As regards the relations between Pakistan and the United States, or our conviction about fighting terrorism, there is no question that Pakistan is one of the countries which has done the most because we believe terrorism is no solution to any problems,” he said.
Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal, or United Action Forum, an opposition Islamic coalition, has organized a series of anti-U.S. protests across the country, the latest on Friday.
The largest was held in Peshawar, capital of North West Frontier Province where Damadola is located.
Several thousand people marched from two mosques chanting “Jihad (holy war) is our way” and burning effigies of President Bush. Smaller demonstrations were staged in Lahore and the volatile border town of Wana. No violence was reported.
“We will keep fighting jihad with our pens and our voices. If there is need, we will fight with other means,” Shahid Shamsi, a spokesman for the religious alliance, told The Associated Press when asked if it was advocating armed struggle.
None of the speakers at the Peshawar rally referred to the audiotape message released Thursday by al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, who said he was planning more attacks in the United States but also called for an undefined truce.
Radical Islamic groups oppose Musharraf for supporting Washington in the fight against terrorism, including the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan that ousted the Taliban for harboring bin Laden and his terror network.
Search for graves
As the domestic backlash over the missile strike continued, Pakistani authorities said they were still investigating the identities and fate of those meeting at Damadola.
Four or five al-Qaida militants are believed to have died in the missile strike, including Midhat Mursi, the Egyptian master bomb maker who is on the FBI’s list of most-wanted terrorists, and al-Qaida leaders of attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The government, however, says they are still looking for the graves.
Several other militants are thought to have survived.
Aziz, the prime minister, said Friday no “tangible evidence” had been found so far of al-Qaida operatives.
The intelligence official identified one of the survivors as a foreigner of uncertain nationality, Abu Suleman. Pakistani officials accuse him of plotting attacks in their country and say authorities narrowly missed capturing him in two raids in Peshawar in the past two years.