How Would the U.S. Know if it Killed a Qaeda Chief?

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Veteran FBI agent Danny Coleman, who served for years as the bureau's ranking expert on Osama Bin Laden, Ayman Zawahiri and the rest of the Qaeda inner circle, doesn't get too excited when he hears a report of Zawahiri's demise — such as the one that briefly grabbed headlines on Saturday before Pakistani officials shot it down.

"Three years ago, somebody gave me a skull that was supposed to be his," says Coleman, who recently retired. It was a nice try. "It had a prayer burn on the forehead" the ex-agent says. "Zawahiri has a very distinctive one on his forehead."

But with a $25 million reward at stake, Coleman says, "I like to have some proof." According to law enforcement and military sources, the Egyptian government has provided the U.S. with DNA from Zawahiri's brother, who is languishing in an Egyptian prison. That gives U.S. intelligence a scientific means to positively identify the fugitive Qaeda leader.

The tests, run at the FBI laboratory in Washington, were definitive, and negative. "It was just some poor guy somebody dug up," says Coleman.

In a part of the world where people can be killed for trinkets, the astronomical U.S. bounty on Zawahiri — plus whatever the CIA is offering from its discretionary slush fund — has no doubt inspired countless bounty hunters and snitches peddling dubious information. It's too soon to say whether the tip that caused the U.S. to target a benighted village in northwest Pakistan was real or just another false lead. In fact, the identities of those who died in the strike may never be established to the satisfaction of the U.S., given the difficulties of obtaining unbiased witness accounts and the even more formidable obstacles to recovering tissue and other forensic evidence from the rubble.

Even if Zawahiri were to have been killed in the strike, Coleman believes his loss would not be a crippling blow to al-Qaeda. Zawahiri is certainly a radicalized, visceral killer, driven by "a deep-down hatred" honed by his experiences in an Egyptian prison. Coleman believes the Egyptian contingent of al-Qaeda demonstrated a bloodlust unusual even among the committed jihadists. Many graduates of Qaeda camps had no qualms about carrying out bombings, but few matched the Egyptians' readiness to spill blood up close, through shootings and stabbings. "The Egyptians were always more doers than talkers," says Coleman. "They were capable of extraordinary violence which the other people in al Qaeda weren't capable of, necessarily."

But for all Zawahiri's ruthlessness, his crankiness undermined his effectiveness as a leader of the organization — leadership in al-Qaeda, like any legitimate organization, requires people skills that seem to have eluded the Egyptian physician. "He couldn't lead his own family round the block," says Coleman. "He's a very disagreeable person. He's capable, he writes well, he's a pretty good speaker, but he's an incredibly disagreeable person. In terms of actually leading anybody he's not that good. He likes to fight with people, so it's hard for him to lead. "

Bin Laden is beloved by those in al Qaeda who know him and work with him. But while many in the movement may have a high regard for Zawahiri's education and intellectual skills, Coleman says, they just don't like the man.