WASHINGTON — The CIA has come closer to capturing or killing Osama bin Laden's top deputy than was previously known during the past nine years, the Associated Press has learned.
The agency thought it had its best chance last year at a secret base in Afghanistan, but instead it fell victim to a double agent's devastating suicide bombing.
The CIA missed a chance to nab Ayman al-Zawahri in 2003 in the northwest Pakistani city of Peshawar, where he met with another senior al-Qaida leader who was apprehended the next day, several current and former U.S. intelligence officials said.
The fugitive Egyptian doctor may also have narrowly survived a bombing by Pakistani military planes in 2004, the former and current officials said. And a well-publicized U.S. missile strike aimed at him in 2006 failed because he didn't turn up at the attack site, they said.
Targeting Zawahri — along with bin Laden — is a main goal of U.S. counterterror efforts, focused on a man who has retained control of al-Qaida's operations and strategic planning even as he has led an underground existence in Pakistan's rugged tribal border zone.
"Finding senior al-Qaida terrorists — at a time when we're pursuing the most aggressive counterterrorism operations in our history — is, of course, a top priority for the CIA," said agency spokesman George Little.
Unlike bin Laden, a cipher since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks who has surfaced only in occasional taped statements, Zawahri 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 scrutinized closely for clues, the Associated Press reported, citing the current and former officials, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the classified hunt for the al-Qaida leader.
Bin Laden, 53, is believed to be hiding near the border between Pakistan's lawless tribal regions and Afghanistan. Zawahri, 59, appears to have spent time in Pakistan's northwest tribal region of Bajaur, populated by large numbers of Wahabi Islam followers.