- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 1, 2010

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.

Tragically, the agency thought it had its best chance last year at a secret base in Afghanistan, but instead 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 Qaeda leader who was apprehended the next day, several current and former U.S. intelligence officials said.

The fugitive Egyptian doctor also may 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 did not turn up at the attack site, they said.

Targeting al-Zawahri - along with bin Laden - is a main goal of U.S. counterterror efforts, which are 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 Sept. 11 attacks who has surfaced only in occasional taped statements, al-Zawahri has kept a higher public profile and taken risks that expose him more frequently.

He is known to travel cautiously and he 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 Qaeda leader.

The CIA’s pursuit of al-Zawahri 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 U.S. intelligence debacles in recent decades.

The bomber turned out to be an al Qaeda double agent who had lulled U.S. intelligence into believing he could bring them closer to al-Zawahri. Part of the terrorist’s bait was his claim that al-Zawahri suffered from diabetes - a revelation about his health, if true.

A blunt internal inquiry raked the CIA in October for failing to properly vet the double agent in the months before the bombing and suggested its preoccupation with al-Zawahri may have led to lapses in judgment. One person familiar with the inquiry said the agency’s zeal to get to al-Zawahri was a “significant driver” behind the mistakes, a conclusion even CIA Director Leon E. 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 judgments that were made here.”

Al-Zawahri 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 U.S. official familiar with the targeting efforts. “We had more [intelligence] and we had better confidence in it.”

Former intelligence officials say both bin Laden and al-Zawahri take elaborate precautions, keeping their distance from each other to ensure that al Qaeda’s top leadership would not be eliminated in a single strike.

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