Expert: 'Significant Blow to Al Qaeda'

One is believed to be a chemical weapons expert, another allegedly plotted assassinations. A third planned attacks targeting U.S. troops, while a son-in-law publicized their exploits in the name of Al Qaeda and recruited new militants.

Now this top group is believed to have been wiped out by a U.S. missile strike. If true, it's far from a death blow to Al Qaeda, but analysts say it could weaken the terror group's operations in Afghanistan, which has seen an alarming rise in homicide attacks.

The strike apparently missed Al Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri. And an audiotape aired Thursday, the first public communication from Usama bin Laden in over a year, suggests the terror network's figureheads are alive.

But the possible demise of four top lieutenants reported by Pakistani officials would rob Al Qaeda of people holding the reins to daily operations.

"It's a very significant blow to Al Qaeda," said Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore. "These are very experienced leaders and to replace them in the short term will be very difficult."

The Jan. 13 attack on an Islamic holiday gathering in Damadola killed 13 villagers in the Pakistani hamlet near the Afghan border, and possibly four or five foreign militants whose bodies were reportedly spirited away by sympathizers.

None of the militants' bodies has been traced, but Pakistani officials say they likely included Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar, an al Qaeda explosives expert with a $5 million bounty on his head.

He allegedly tested chemical weapons on dogs and trained hundreds of fighters at a terror camp in Afghanistan before the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. Terrorism experts believe that among his students were the homicide bombers who killed 17 U.S. sailors on the USS Cole in 2000.

Another likely victim is Abdul Rehman al-Maghribi, a Moroccan believed to be al-Zawahiri's son-in-law, who acted as a PR man for the terror group, distributing CDs and videos to publicize its exploits and attract new followers.

But the biggest quarry could be Khalid Habib, Al Qaeda's operations chief along the Afghan-Pakistan border — from where militants can launch attacks on U.S. forces and Afghan government targets. Pakistani officials also accuse him of planning two assassination attempts on Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

"You can say he's the No. 3 leader," Gunaratna said. "As the chief operations officer, he decides who gets hit and when."

Violence in Afghanistan's south and east spiked last year, killing about 1,600 people, including a surge of at least 20 homicide attacks in less than four months — a change of tactics by the militants, who may be mimicking counterparts in Iraq.

Afghanistan's Defense Ministry spokesman, Gen. Mohammed Zahir Azimi, said it was too early to tell what effect the missile strike would have on the insurgency in Afghanistan.

But Assadullah Wafa, governor of Afghanistan's Kunar region bordering the area around Damadola, said the attack would seriously damage morale.

"I can't imagine there will be any retaliatory strikes," he said. "They will regroup and then keep a low profile to make sure they're not hit again."

Based in Wafa's home province is another suspected casualty of the attack, Abu Obaidah al-Masri. He is believed to be in charge of planning attacks on U.S.-led coalition forces in the area, which Pakistan says are forbidden from crossing the border in pursuit of militants.

Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general, said the loss of four top operatives would keep Al Qaeda on the defensive in Afghanistan and away from the planning board.

"They have fewer and fewer hiding places," Masood said. "People should be more hesitant to give them sanctuary."

But the attack has strained Washington's ties with Pakistan, a key ally in the war on terror. Pakistan has caught over 700 Al Qaeda suspects in the past four years, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.

Thousands of Pakistanis have taken to the streets to protest the attack, including more than 1,000 in the northwestern city of Peshawar on Thursday. They denounced the United States and called for the resignation of Musharraf, accusing him of being an American puppet. More rallies were planned Friday.

"Pakistan should not fight against Al Qaeda because this is America's war," said Qazi Hussain Ahmed, head of an anti-U.S. religious alliance.

But that anger may cool with confirmation that Al Qaeda leaders actually were at the blast site and not just villagers.

"It shows that U.S. intelligence might not have been so bad after all," said Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum think tank. "But I don't think we can fool ourselves into thinking this is a death blow. Al-Qaida's a snake with many heads."

The war on terror has forced Al Qaeda to decentralize, experts say. Isolated on the remote Afghan-Pakistan border, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri remain powerful symbols for followers but are probably unable to direct operations around the world.

Masood predicted the U.S.-led coalition would step up military actions in the region to keep the pressure on Al Qaeda, regardless of public opposition in Pakistan.

"They will not be deterred by negative fallout," he said. "They think it's just collateral damage."