The recent air strike at Damadola, Pakistan, that missed al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, is still a great success. This is because the CIA's strike managed to get a few important al Qaeda operatives anyway. At least four high ranking al Qaeda officials, including the organization's master bomb-maker, and a chemical weapons expert, Midhat Mursi. If anything, this outcome is arguably more devastating to al-Qaeda than if Zawahiri had been killed alone. Zawahiri was a strategist and mouthpiece, the guys killed were operators, who did specific things to kill people.
The reason this strike is devastating to al Qaeda is simple. Behind great generals are often great staffs. A good staff can take care of the small details and allow a general (or leader) to focus on the big picture. The four terrorists were apparently senior level aides to Zawahiri. This will force a major shake-up in the senior leadership. Also, this raid has taken al Qaeda's top chemical weapons expert out of play. Two of the people trained by Mursi are familiar to most Americans: Zacarias Moussaoui, who was thought to be a potential hijacker, and would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid. Also apparently killed in the attack were al-Qaeda's Afghanistan-Pakistan
operations chief, Khalid Habib, and Abdul Rehman al Magrabi, another operations commander.
There is still a chance that Ayman al-Zawahiri was caught in this attack (miracles can happen), but it is unlikely. But Zawahiri has not lost a large number of senior and trusted staffers. In essence, he will have to assemble a new staff - and they may not be at the same level as the previous group. They replacements will also know what happened to their predecessors. This is not going to be good for the morale of the organization.
Striking the infrastructure of an organization like al-Qaeda tends to eventually flush out the big fish. The best example of this was the 1993 operations against the Medellin drug cartel, run by Pablo Escobar. One of the real keys to the takedown of Escobar was the work of Perseguedo por Pablo Escobar (the People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar, or Los Pepes). Their operations against Escobar's associates eventually led Escobar being located and killed in a firefight in December, 1993.
This is but the latest blow that al-Qaeda has suffered. From the start of last year, al-Qaeda has not only failed to stop three elections in Iraq, but they have suffered serious losses among their high-level leadership. The reorganization will be very dangerous for al-Qaeda. It will require a lot of communicating - and the more communicating al-Qaeda does, the easier it will be to locate the big fish. And it makes another strike like the one in Damadola much more likely. - Harold C. Hutchison (firstname.lastname@example.org)