A missile from a US Predator drone struck a suspected terrorist safe house in Pakistan and killed a top Al Qaida commander believed responsible for a brazen bomb attack during a visit last year by the US vice president to Afghanistan, an American official said.
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 websites and confirmed by a US official Thursday on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the strike publicly.
Although a Pakistan government spokesman in Islamabad said he had no information to prove Al Libi was dead, intelligence officials in Miran Shah, a main town in North Waziristan, said there were strong indications he had been killed.
“Our sources among militants ... are telling us that Al Libi died in the US missile attack,” said a security official who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the 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 permit US 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 the US Air Force and CIA with Hellfire anti-tank missiles. Even though all signs point to the CIA, agency officials would not confirm that 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 US 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 US-led coalition troops in Afghanistan, said Friday.
A senior US official said last week that the top two US intelligence officials made a secret visit to Pakistan in early January to seek permission from Musharraf for greater involvement of American forces in trying to ferret out Al Qaida and other militant groups active in the tribal regions along the Afghanistan border.
The 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 January 9 meeting with CIA Director Michael Hayden and Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence, as saying US troops would be regarded as invaders if they crossed into Pakistan to hunt Al Qaida militants.
The CIA first used the remotely piloted Predator 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 missile 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 US says Al Libi - whose name means “the Libyan” in Arabic - was likely behind a February 2007 bombing at the US base at Bagram in Afghanistan during a visit by US Vice President Dick Cheney. The attack killed 23 people but Cheney was deep inside the sprawling base and was not hurt.
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.
A website 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 US Predator drones flying in the area shortly before the explosion, which destroyed the compound.
A Pakistani intelligence official - who 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.
US 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 was known to maintain close ties with tribes living on the Pakistani side of the mountainous border, where US officials believe Al Qaida has been regrouping.
A Pakistani intelligence official said 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 issue.
Farhana Ali, a terror expert at the RAND Corporation, said Al Libi’s death was a “significant blow” to Al Qaida but added that “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.” (AP)
One of Al Qaida’s top commanders killed in Pakistan