U.S. special operations forces were targeting the leader of al-Qaida in Afghanistan — one of the organization's top commanders — when they launched an attack against a compound that killed seven children Sunday in Paktika province of eastern Afghanistan, U.S. officials tell NBC News.
According to several officials, and contrary to previous statements, the U.S. military knew there were children at the compound but considered the target of such high value it was worth the risk of potential collateral damage.
Those same officials tell NBC News the target of Sunday's attack was Abu Laith al Libi, the al-Qaida commander in Afghanistan and a top lieutenant of Osama bin Laden. The sources report that although six sets of remains besides those of the seven children were recovered, it's not clear whether Abu Laith is among those killed.
Abu Laith, a physically imposing 40-year-old Libyan, is an outspoken leader of al-Qaida, appearing in videos and on the Internet. An October 2006 Defense Intelligence Agency analysis describes him this way: “Speaks Arabic with a Maghreb/Moroccan dialect; scars on back as if beaten by a belt or wire; senior Al Qaeda commander; expert in guerrilla warfare.”
Abu Laith is also believed to wear a dental bridge that could help in identifying him.
It was he in July 2002 who revealed that bin Laden was still alive, the first comments about the al-Qaida leader's health after the end of the Afghan conflict. Then, in June 2004, he was shown leading an attack on what appears to be an Afghan military outpost and calling for jihad while praising both the Taliban and bin Laden. He is known to operate on the Afghan side of the border, working with the remnants of the Taliban.
In some U.S. intelligence analyses, he is viewed as one of the organization's top commanders, ranking in the top five.
Military officials say special operations forces relied on a relatively new weapons system to carry out the attack — High Mobility Artillery Rockets, or HIMARS. The rockets are fired high into the atmosphere from launchers on the ground. Then, on the way down, they are guided to the target by either GPS or lasers. The officials say as many of five of these HIMARS were used in the attack on the compound. It was the same weapons system used recently in the killing of Mullah Dadullah, the Taliban’s military commander. The rockets are now used as a complement to the Predator drones that have killed more than a dozen al-Qaida leaders since Sept 11, 2001.
Initial reports had U.S. jets targeting a compound that also contained a mosque and a madrassa, or Islamic school.
A coalition statement following the attack said "nefarious activity was occurring at the site" without describing either the activity or the level of al-Qaida present. Army Maj. Chris Belcher, a coalition spokesman, accused al-Qaida of using "the protective status of a mosque, as well as innocent civilians, to shield themselves."
Early reports indicated seven children at the madrassa and "several militants" were killed, and two militants detained, the statement said.
"We are saddened by the innocent lives that were lost as a result of militants' cowardice," Belcher said Monday. But Belcher also contended coalition troops had "surveillance on the compound all day and saw no indications there were children inside the building."
He accused the militants of not letting the children leave the compound.
"If we knew that there were children inside the building, there was no way that that airstrike would have occurred," said Sgt. 1st Class Dean Welch, another coalition spokesman.
But Tuesday, other U.S. officials confirmed that U.S. forces were indeed aware of the children's presence. Military officials told NBC News the al-Qaida leader was considered such a high-value target it was worth the risk that some children might become casualties of the attack.
Past attacks scrubbed because of civilian presence
The U.S. has in the past called off attacks on al-Qaida hideouts because of the presence of civilians, including family members of high-value targets.
The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said it has sent a team with the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission to investigate the incident.
Col. Jack Jacobs, a Medal of Honor winner and NBC News analyst, said that decisions to go ahead with an attack when civilians are believed present are among the most agonizing military commanders have to make.
"As a military officer, it is difficult to talk about the calculation involved, weighing the independent variables, whether it’s saving your country or achieving your objectives, while acknowledging that it requires the taking of innocent lives.
“It’s what still haunts the military from World War II, when 70,000 or 100,000 civilians were killed because people thought it would end the war sooner.”
Roger Cressey, former deputy director of counterterrorism at the National Security Council and another NBC News analyst, said killing Abu Laith would be a major strategic victory, adding to “serious leadership losses al-Qaida and the Taliban have suffered recently.”
“In the aggregate, this will impact their ability to maintain command and control and eliminate experienced battlefield leadership,” Cressey said.