The missiles were deadly accurate. In the
pitch dark of a night in Pakistan's sparsely populated North West
Frontier Province, they not only located the three targeted houses on
the outskirts of the village of Damadola Burkanday but squarely struck
their hujra, the large rooms traditionally used by Pashtun tribesmen to
Yesterday some of the results of the strike were very clear: three
ruined houses, mud-brick rubble scattered across the steeply terraced
fields, the bodies of livestock lying where thrown by the airblast, a
row of newly dug graves in the village cemetery and torn green and red
embroidered blankets flapping in the chilly wind. Four children were
among the 18 villagers who died in the brutally sudden attack on their
evidence emerging appeared to indicate that, though the technology that
guided the missiles to their targets at 3am on Friday was faultless,
the intelligence that had selected those targets was not. Even as
American military and intelligence sources spoke of the possible death
of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the second-in-command of al-Qaeda and the man
considered to be the brains behind the militant group's strategy,
Pakistani officials said that there was no evidence any 'foreigners',
shorthand locally for al-Qaeda fighters, were among the 18 victims,
though they said that 'according to preliminary investigations there
was foreign presence in the area'.
In a bid to distance themselves from what was looking like a tragic
and counter-productive tactical error that had cost many innocent
lives, Pakistan announced it would file a formal protest with the
Americans. Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told a news
conference that the Pakistani government wanted 'to assure the people
we will not allow such incidents to recur,' adding that the government
had no information about al-Zawahiri.
'We deeply regret that civilian lives have been lost in an incident.
While this act is highly condemnable, we have been for a long time
striving to rid all our tribal areas of foreign intruders who have been
responsible for all the misery and violence in the region. This
situation has to be brought to an end,' he said.
But his words did little to calm the anger in and around Damadola, a
bastion of conservative religion and tribal chauvinism, and elsewhere
in Pakistan. The village lies in the semi-autonomous Bajur tribal
region around 120 miles northwest of Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.
It is a rugged and desperately poor region, until recently a centre of
opium cultivation, where local men habitually go armed and government
authority is limited to main roads. Thousands of local men marched in a
series of protests yesterday, one crowd attacking the office of a
US-funded aid group. In another incident, police were forced to fire
tear gas to disperse as many as 400 protesters chanting anti-American
slogans and waving banners condemning the Pakistan President, General
Musharraf, who came to power in 1999, has maintained a difficult and
domestically unpopular alliance with Washington since 2001 and has
deployed unprecedented numbers of troops on bloody operations to
capture senior al-Qaeda figures. However, to the Americans' intense
annoyance, he has not granted US forces in Afghanistan the right to
cross the border into Pakistan, even in pursuit of militants.
American-led coalition forces clashing with militants in the
mountainous province of Kunar, immediately adjacent to Bajaur which
lies a mere four miles from the frontier, say they have often been
frustrated by their enemies' use of Pakistan as a sanctuary. Yesterday
the Pakistani Foreign Ministry took pains to point out that 'in all
probability [the village] was targeted from across the border in
Tensions between Washington and Islamabad have grown in recent weeks
as American troops have stepped up operations against militants.
Pakistan has already lodged a protest with the US military six days ago
after a reported US airstrike killed eight people in the North
Waziristan tribal region, an almost deserted area of mountains 300
miles south of Damadola. In Damadola itself, locals said they had never
sheltered any al-Qaeda or Taliban leaders, let alone al-Zawahiri, an
instantly recognisable 54-year-old Egyptian-born ex-doctor.
'This is a big lie... Only our family members died in the attack,'
said Shah Zaman, a jeweller who lost two sons and a daughter in the
attack. 'They dropped bombs from planes and we were in no position to
stop them... or to tell them we are innocent. I don't know
[al-Zawahiri]. He was not at my home. No foreigner was at my home when
the planes came and dropped bombs.' Haroon Rashid, a member of
parliament who lives in a village near Damadola, told The Observer that
he had seen a drone surveying the area hours before the attack.
'A drone has been flying over the area for the last three, four
days, and I had a feeling that something nasty was going to happen,' he
said in a phone interview. 'There was no foreigner there - we never saw
a single foreigner here. They were all local people, jewellers and
shop-keepers, who used to commute between Bajaur and their village. We
The dead were reported to include four children, aged between five
and ten, and at least two women. According to Islamic tradition, they
were buried almost immediately. One Pakistani official, speaking
anonymously, told The Observer that hours before the strike some
unidentified guests had arrived at one home and that some bodies had
been removed quickly after the attack. This was denied by villagers.
US and Pakistani officials have also said that the missiles were
launched from American pilotless predator drones, which have previously
been used to target senior al-Qaeda figures. A man alleged to be
al-Qaeda's third-in-command was killed in a 'stand-off' missile attack
around a month ago. However, several eyewitnesses spoke of seeing
planes and illuminating flares over the village, which if true would
indicate the use of missiles from planes guided in by special forces
teams on the ground rather than CIA-operated drones.
Obaidullah, a local doctor, said he saw the airstrike from his home
about five to six kilometres away. 'There was one plane flying
(overhead). Then more planes came. First they dropped light and then
bombs,' he said. If US troops have crossed the frontier from
Afghanistan in pursuit of militants, it would be a major diplomatic
incident and a domestic disaster for Musharraf.
The Americans have become increasingly frustrated by their inability
to catch al-Zawahiri, whom analysts see as the strategic mentor of
Osama bin Laden. Al-Zawahiri was already a hardened Egyptian militant
when he joined bin Laden, a Saudi Arabian six years younger, in the
late 1980s to form the al-Qaeda group out of the remnants of Arab
'mujahideen' who had fought the Russians in Afghanistan. After
masterminding a series of attacks, culminating in the 11 September
atrocities, from camps in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, al-Zawahiri
has been on the run. However, this has not stopped him providing broad
strategic direction for the international Islamic militant movement
and, through appearing in frequent propaganda videos, becoming almost
as well known as bin Laden himself. Despite a huge manhunt and a $25m
reward, he has escaped capture. Strong local sympathy for al-Qaeda
fugitives in the harsh hills that line the Afghan frontier with
Pakistan has been a major advantage.
'The Americans are really not much closer to finding him than they
were years ago,' said one intelligence analyst. 'They are hunting in an
area that is about a thousand miles long and two hundred miles wide.
That is a tough job by anyone's standards.' The carnage at Damadola
indicates that the hunted is still a step ahead of the hunters.
The Al-Zawahiri file
· Born 1951, Cairo. Son of a chemistry professor. A
· Travelled to Pakistan in 1985 after being arrested,
imprisoned and tortured in sweep of militants following killing of
· Spent 1991-1996 in Sudan with Osama bin Laden before
moving to Afghanistan.
· A key theorist of modern Islamic militancy, he
developed strategy of using spectacular violence against American
interests to 'wake up the masses'.
· From series of mountain hideouts along Pakistan
-Afghanistan frontier he has issued videos and communiqués aimed
at inspiring militants