Top al-Qaida figure killed in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – A missile from a U.S. Predator drone struck a suspected terrorist safehouse in Pakistan and killed a top al-Qaida commander believed responsible for attacks on U.S. forces and the brazen bombing during a visit last year by Vice President Dick Cheney to Afghanistan, a U.S. official said Thursday.
The strike that killed Abu Laith al-Libi was conducted Monday night or early Tuesday against a facility in Pakistan’s north Waziristan region, the lawless tribal area bordering Afghanistan. His death was reported by postings on two Islamist Web sites and confirmed by a U.S. official on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss the strike publicly.

Although a Pakistani government spokesman in Islamabad said he had no information to prove that al-Libi was dead, intelligence officials in Miran Shah, a main town in North Waziristan, said on Friday there were strong indications that he had been killed.

“Our sources among militants … are telling us that al-Libi died in the U.S. missile attack,” said a security official who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to media. A second intelligence official confirmed that account.

The killing of such a major al-Qaida figure on Pakistani soil is likely to embarrass Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, who has repeatedly said he would not sanction U.S. military action against al-Qaida members believed to be regrouping in the wild borderlands near Afghanistan.

It could also signal a more robust covert operation against al-Qaida figures who have sought refuge on Pakistani soil.

An estimated 12 people were killed in the strike, including Arabs, Turkmen from central Asia and local Taliban members, according to an intelligence official in the area who spoke on condition of anonymity. He said the bodies of those killed were badly mangled by the force of the explosion and it was difficult to identify them.

The Predator is an unmanned reconnaissance aircraft that has been armed by both Air Force and CIA with Hellfire anti-tank missiles. Even though all signs point to the CIA, agency officials would not confirm their aircraft were involved in the strike.

In the past, coalition forces in Afghanistan are believed to have launched a number of similar missile strikes against Taliban and al-Qaida militants hiding on the Pakistani side of the border, but the U.S. military has never confirmed any of them.

“We have no official information on this. Coalition forces do not conduct operations in Pakistan,” Maj. Chris Belcher, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition troops in Afghanistan, said Friday.

A Pentagon spokesman said any information on the attack would have to come from the Pakistani government.

A senior U.S. official said last week that the top two U.S. intelligence officials made a secret visit to Pakistan in early January to seek permission from Musharraf for greater involvement of American forces against militants operating near the Afghanistan border, a senior U.S. official said.

That official, speaking on condition of anonymity given the secret nature of the talks, declined to disclose what was said, but Musharraf was quoted two days after the Jan. 9 meeting with CIA Director Michael Hayden and Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence, as saying U.S. troops would be regarded as invaders if they crossed into Pakistan to hunt al-Qaida militants.

The CIA first used the remotely piloted craft as a strike plane in November 2002 against six alleged al-Qaida members traveling in a vehicle in Yemen.

In January 2006, Ayman Al-Zawahri, al-Qaida’s second-in-command, was the target of a missiles allegedly fired from a CIA Predator drone near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. The terror leader was not at the site, but officials said four key al-Qaida operatives were killed.

The U.S. says al-Libi — whose name means “the Libyan” in Arabic — was likely behind the February 2007 bombing at the U.S. base at Bagram in Afghanistan during a visit by Cheney. The attack killed 23 people but Cheney was deep inside the sprawling base and was not hurt.

The bombing added to the impression that Western forces and the shaky government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai are vulnerable to assault by Taliban and al-Qaida militants.

Terrorism experts said al-Libi’s death was a significant setback for al-Qaida because of his extensive ties to the Taliban, but they said the terror network would likely regroup and replace him.

“Al-Libi has been waging jihad for more than 10 years and it will be a blow to both al-Qaida and the Taliban, but not in a way that will lead to the downfall of those organizations,” said Eric Rosenbach, terror expert and executive director of the Center for International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

Pakistani officials denied any knowledge of al-Libi’s death. A Web site that frequently carries announcements from militant groups said al-Libi had been “martyred with a group of his brothers in the land of Muslim Pakistan” but gave no further details.

Residents near the Pakistani town of Mir Ali in North Waziristan said they could hear U.S. Predator drones flying in the area shortly before the explosion, which destroyed the compound.

A Pakistani intelligence official — who also sought anonymity because of the sensitive nature of his work — said local militants quickly retrieved and buried the bodies in the village cemetery after the attack.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he did not “have anything definitive” to say on reports of al-Libi’s death.

The Libyan-born al-Libi was among the most high-profile figures in al-Qaida after its leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy al-Zawahri.

Al-Libi also led an al-Qaida training camp and appeared in a number of al-Qaida Internet videos.

In spring 2007, al-Qaida’s media wing, Al-Sahab, released a video interview with a bearded man identified as al-Libi. In it, he accuses Shiite Muslims of fighting alongside American forces in Iraq, and claimed that mujahedeen would crush foreign troops in Afghanistan.

Al-Libi also led an al-Qaida training camp and appeared in a number of al-Qaida Internet videos.

He was known to maintain close ties with tribes living on the Pakistani side of the mountainous border, where U.S. officials believe al-Qaida has been regrouping.

“Al-Libi’s death is a significant blow to al-Qaida the organization because he is one of the few people left in the organization who has a historical track record,” said Farhana Ali, terror expert at the RAND corporation.

But, she added, “al-Qaida’s strength is that it knows how to secure membership and recruitment, and because the movement will continue, al-Libi will be replaced.”

A Pakistani intelligence official said that al-Libi was based near Mir Ali until late 2003 when he moved back into Afghanistan to take charge of al-Qaida operations on both sides of the border area. But he retained links with North Waziristan, the official said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.

Mir Ali is the second-biggest town in North Waziristan and has a strong presence of foreign militants, mostly Uzbeks with links to al-Qaida who fled to Pakistan’s tribal regions after the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001.

The 2006 Predator attack that failed to hit al-Zawahri drew criticism from Pakistan which said that the 17 killed were people from in the village of Damadola in the Bajur tribal area, about four miles inside Pakistan.

Pakistani security officials said the four top operatives were believed killed in the strike. They included Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar, who the U.S. Justice Department called an explosives and poisons expert; Abu Obaidah al-Masri, the al-Qaida chief responsible for attacks on U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan; and Abdul Rehman al-Maghribi, a Moroccan and relative of al-Zawahri, possibly his son-in-law. Some of the officials also said a fourth man, Khalid Habib, the al-Qaida operations chief along the Afghan-Pakistan border, was believed to be dead.

Rosenbach said militants who rise to No. 3 al-Qaida positions, like al-Libi, are often in charge of planning operations, exposing them to capture or death. Others he named included Mohammed Atef, who was killed, and Abu Faraj al-Libbi, who was captured.

“It has to be one of the most dangerous jobs on earth. They generally don’t last longer than a year — mostly because the al-Qaida chief of operations has a large ‘signature’ resulting from planning operations,” he said. “Our intelligence has done an excellent job in tracking them down.”

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