WASHINGTON // The CIA has come closer to capturing or killing Osama bin Laden's top deputy than was previously known, during a nine-year hunt at the root of a devastating 2009 suicide bombing at an agency base in Afghanistan, The Associated Press has learned.
The CIA missed a chance to catch Ayman al Zawahiri in 2003 in the north-west Pakistani city of Peshawar, where he met with another senior al Qa'eda leader who was apprehended the next day, several current and former US intelligence officials said.
The fugitive Egyptian doctor might also have narrowly survived a bombing by Pakistani military planes in 2004, the former and current officials said. And a well-publicised US missile strike aimed at him in 2006 failed because he did not turn up at the attack site, they said.
Targeting al Zawahiri - along with bin Laden - is a main goal of US counterterror efforts, focused on a man who has retained control of al Qa'eda's operations and strategic planning even as he has led an underground existence in Pakistan's rugged tribal border zone.
But unlike bin Laden, a cipher since the September 11 attacks who has surfaced only in occasional taped statements, al Zawahiri has kept a higher public profile, taking risks that expose him more.
He is known to travel cautiously and regularly issues audio and video harangues that are scrutinised closely for clues, said the current and former officials, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the classified hunt for the al Qa'eda leader.
The CIA's pursuit of al Zawahiri climaxed last December in the suicide bombing that left seven agency employees dead at the agency's eastern Afghanistan base in Khost, one of the worst US intelligence debacles in recent decades.
The bomber turned out to be an al Qa'eda double agent who had lulled US intelligence into believing he could bring them closer to al Zawahiri. Part of the terrorist's bait was his claim that al Zawahiri suffered from diabetes.
A blunt internal inquiry raked the CIA last month for failing to properly vet the double agent in the months before the bombing and suggested its preoccupation with al Zawahiri might have led to lapses in judgment. One person familiar with the inquiry said the agency's intent on getting to al Zawahiri was a "significant driver" behind the mistakes, a conclusion even the CIA director Leon Panetta acknowledged.
"That's what this mission was all about," Mr Panetta said. "It was the opportunity that we all thought we had to be able to go after No 2." He added that "in some ways maybe the mission itself clouded some of the judgements that were made here."
Al Zawahiri has presented a more opportunistic target than bin Laden both because of his visibility and also because of the CIA's ability to develop better intelligence about his movements.
"We felt like we did at times come very close to getting him," said a former senior US official familiar with the targeting efforts. "We had more of it [intelligence] and we had better confidence in it."
Former intelligence officials say both bin Laden and al Zawahiri take elaborate precautions, keeping their distance from each other to ensure that al Qa'eda's top leadership would not be eliminated in a single strike.
Bin Laden, 53, is believed to be hiding near the border between Pakistan's lawless tribal regions and Afghanistan. Al Zawahiri, 59, appears to have spent time in Pakistan's north-western tribal region of Bajaur, populated by large numbers of Wahabi Islam followers.
Both men are believed to be wary of using mobile or satellite phones. But al Zawahiri has tried at times to make contact with family members in Egypt, former intelligence officials say. More importantly, he has remained in the public eye with numerous messages.
According to the private Site Intelligence Group, bin Laden has made 23 audiotapes and one videotape since 2006. Al Zawahiri has outpaced his superior, making 37 audio and 22 video recordings in the same period. In al Zawahiri's latest audio recording, issued on November 4, he warned the US that "we will fight you until the last hour."
Each time al Zawahiri speaks, he increases the chances the US could zero in on him. The CIA scours his recordings for clues, the former officials said, sifting for signs that might indicate how long it takes al Zawahiri to receive information about current events he cites.
"It tells us about information flow," said Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation.
Despite the risks he takes, al Zawahiri has always been able to keep several steps ahead of his pursuers.
The CIA had its first chance on February 28, 2003. Former intelligence officials say al Zawahiri met that day in a car with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-professed mastermind of 9/11 attacks, in Peshawar. Al Zawahiri, a former official said, was on his way to the remote northern tribal region.
The former officials say the CIA was pursuing Mohammed at the time, but did not have a fix on him until an informant sent a text message to a CIA handler the next day that he was in Rawalpindi, about 180km to the east. Pakistan's spy service, which was working with the CIA, moved in and captured Mohammed.
By then, al Zawahiri was gone.
Mohammed was flown to a CIA black site in Poland and interrogated using harsh methods, including waterboarding, which simulates drowning. Mohammed admitted he had met with al Zawahiri but would not disclose the details, a former CIA officer said.
The next chance to target al Zawahiri came in mid-March 2004, former officials said. A detainee in US custody passed along information about a possible al Qa'eda hideout in the mountainous north-west Pakistani region of South Waziristan, where government troops, helicopters and planes were mounting a military offensive against militants.
The CIA passed the intelligence to the Pakistan military, which bombed the village of Azam Warzak near the Afghan border. The former US officials said they later received reports that al Zawahiri was at the scene during the bombing and suffered minor injuries.
The Pakistani military spokesman Gen Athar Abbas would not confirm the reports, but noted recently that "these were the times when the two intelligence agencies were working hand-in-glove."
Taliban operatives and Pakistani civilians told The Associated Press recently that al Zawahiri was injured in the attack. The al Qa'eda leader then spent three days in the town of Mir Ali in north Waziristan before heading north to Bajaur, said the militants and locals, all of whom insisted on anonymity for safety reasons.
The CIA thought it had another chance to target al Zawahiri on January 13, 2006. The agency had received a tip their target was headed to a gathering of top al Qa'eda operatives in the town of Damadola in the Bajaur region.
A former senior CIA official familiar with the episode said all the "intelligence signatures" pointed to al Zawahiri's arrival that day. The former CIA director Porter Goss gave a green light to launch a drone missile strike, the former senior official said. Mr Goss declined to comment through a spokeswoman.
The drone strike obliterated a mud compound, killing 18 people, provincial officials said, including several al Qa'eda figures and a dozen civilians.
Al Zawahiri was not among them. Pakistani intelligence officials said at the time that he was invited to the dinner but decided instead to send several aides. The CIA initially thought the strike had missed the terrorist leader by an hour, but a current US official recently acknowledged al Zawahiri never showed up.
The CIA thought it had its best chance yet to strike at al Zawahiri last year when a doctor working with Jordanian intelligence claimed to offer new details suggesting the terrorist leader suffered from diabetes. The former and current US officials said there were already indications al Zawahiri might have the disease.
CIA officers began working with the informant, Humam al Balawai, believing the doctor might gain access to al Zawahiri for medical reasons, the former officials said. When al Balawi was taken to meet with CIA officials at a secret base in Khost, in eastern Afghanistan, last December 30, the double agent detonated hidden explosives as the officials neared him.
Those familiar with the CIA's inquiry into the suicide bombing said the operation aimed at al Zawahiri ran afoul of one the spy game's cardinal perils - wishfulness. In this case, the CIA was convinced it might finally have him in its sights after so many misses.
It proved to be one more miss, and a costly one.
* The Associated Press