A Key al Qaeda Bomb Maker Is Killed (Again)

First reported killed in 2006, Midhat Mursi was the apparent target of an airstrike on Monday.

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Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar
Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar

KARACHI, PAKISTAN—A key al Qaeda operative in Pakistan, chemical-weapons expert Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar, was reported killed—for the second time.

Pakistani intelligence officials said that Mursi, an Egyptian, was one of the victims of an airstrike Monday that reportedly hit a religious school in a village just inside Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, killing six people. However, Pakistani intelligence officials asserted Tuesday that the location targeted was a compound being used as an al Qaeda hide-out, adjacent to a religious school.

The attack most likely was carried out by an unmanned U.S. aircraft, a technique that has been used when American intelligence locates a so-called high-value target and gets approval to kill him.

This isn't the first time Mursi, who has had a $5 million U.S. reward on his head, was reported dead. He was prominently identified as one of the victims in a January 2006 airstrike along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Mursi would qualify as a high-value target. He has been regarded as a top explosives expert and poisons trainer. By some accounts, he trained Richard Reid, the "shoe bomber." U.S. officials linked him to the distribution of training manuals that contain instructions for making chemical and biological weapons, although al Qaeda hasn't demonstrated a capacity to use such weapons in its attacks. Reportedly, he previously ran an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan.

As usual, the details of the attack are unclear because there is little independent reporting from the area. Initial reports said the six dead included three children and three adults. Those reports said the missile hit an Islamic school in Azam Warsak, a village in the South Waziristan region.

The local Taliban commander, Mullah Nazir, who has been allied with the Pakistani government, claimed Tuesday that no foreigners died in the attack. In a statement, he said one teacher and six students were killed.

U.S. military officials had no comment, but the pattern was consistent with missile strikes in the region by U.S. drones in the pursuit of al Qaeda and Taliban leaders who take sanctuary in the tribal areas of Pakistan just across the Afghanistan border.

Such U.S. military action inside Pakistan is politically sensitive here, and word of this attack came on the same day that Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was meeting in Washington with President Bush.

U.S. officials have been critical of Pakistan for not doing enough to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda figures or expel them from Pakistan. Pakistan, though, seems to be permitting U.S. airstrikes against so-called high-value targets so long as there is deniability all around. However, Pakistani reports that civilians have been killed in such raids—including this most recent one—are fueling anger against the United States and against Pakistani leaders who permit the actions.