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 CIA missed a chance to nab Ayman al-Zawahiri in 2003 in the northwest Pakistani city of Peshawar, where he met with another senior al Qaeda leader who was apprehended the next day, several current and former US intelligence officials said.
The fugitive Egyptian doctor may also have narrowly survived a bombing by Pakistani military planes in 2004. And a well-publicized 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-Qaeda’s operations and strategic planning even as he has led an underground existence in Pakistan`s rugged tribal border zone.
"Finding senior al-Qaeda 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.
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 scrutinized closely for clues, said the current and former officials, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the classified hunt for the al-Qaida 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.