- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2002

President Bush "is satisfied fully" with the Pentagon's explanation that al Qaeda members, not civilians, were killed in a Feb. 4 air strike by a CIA-operated drone on the Zawar Kili terrorist camp in eastern Afghanistan.
Local Afghans say a remotely fired Hellfire missile hit innocent civilian scavengers, but a senior military official said in an interview that he believes that an al Qaeda finance director was killed.
The military official said his assessment was based on the Predator drone's surveillance of the site for several hours, as well as other intelligence reports, which he declined to disclose.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said yesterday, "I cannot confirm" the report.
"The president, of course, has been briefed," Mr. Fleischer told reporters. "That's part of his regular morning meetings. And I think you have heard from the Defense Department directly about that topic, and the president is satisfied fully with what Defense has informed him."
Mr. Bush is said to be keenly interested in knowing the number of senior al Qaeda members captured or killed in the war on terrorism. He receives regular updates from CIA Director George J. Tenet, whose agency the president has authorized to kill Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
The military source declined to identify the al Qaeda finance director who he thinks was hit. Several al Qaeda members who specialize in finance remain at large, including Abdul Rahim Riyadh and Ahmad Said al Kadr.
Pentagon officials publicly vouch for the Feb. 4 target's appropriateness but say they do not know the identity of the three persons killed. The three were hit as they stood under a tree in one of bin Laden's largest training camps, near the Pakistani border. The CIA and U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., jointly watched the men's movements, through the Predator, before both concurred the targets were al Qaeda members.
"We're convinced it was an appropriate target, based on the observation, based on the information that it was an appropriate target," Victoria Clarke, spokeswoman for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, told reporters Monday.
Central Command, which is running the war in Afghanistan, said evidence collected at the scene is being brought to the United States for analysis. The items include human remains, for which the FBI will try to find DNA matches for positive identification.
Other items found were grenade launchers, small weapons, airline schedules, credit-card applications and a document on which someone was trying to learn English.
Media reports from the Zawar Kili area quoted local villagers as saying the Hellfire strike killed three peasants who were at the camp collecting articles for resale.
A senior U.S. official said in an interview that the men viewed through the Predator's imaging system were not scavenging. One man in Arab dress the one thought to be a senior al Qaeda member was shown deference by those around him.
"These people were seen doing things we associate with al Qaeda, making security arrangements and things like that," the official said.
Said a Pentagon official: "We watched along with the [CIA] for hours, and these guys, through our observations, simply were not picking things up from the ground. They were meeting."
The CIA has wide latitude to find and strike targets using Predator drones, which were initially developed solely for surveillance. Technicians equipped them with Hellfire missiles last summer with a goal of finding and killing bin Laden.
The attack came as the CIA and the U.S. military were conducting a new phase in the war: searching for small pockets of al Qaeda and hard-core Taliban fighters and killing or capturing them.
After coalition air strikes in mid-January badly damaged the Zawar Kili compound to blunt attempts by al Qaeda members to regroup there, the CIA began monitoring the camp.
"Central Command tasked the CIA to pick up the surveillance of this area," the senior official said. "They did it for several hours before the strike happened."
The source said the Predator provided a fairly close-up image of the man in Arab dress but "not good enough to detect facial stuff."
The administration "thinks it was someone of prominence in al Qaeda," the official said.
A remotely controlled drone provides war planners with two big benefits: It can loiter over an area unnoticed for more than 15 hours, without risking the life of a pilot, and it can mount an attack in what the military calls "real time" before the target has a chance to escape.
Asked to explain why locals would say three innocent civilians were killed, U.S. officials said the Zawar Kili area was a hotbed of support for the now-ousted Taliban regime and bin Laden's al Qaeda fighters. They also said that Afghans were aware of the U.S. practice of paying compensation to survivors of civilians mistakenly killed by American strikes.
Bill Sammon contributed to this report.

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