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 a brazen bomb attack 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, the official said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss the strike publicly.
The killing of such a major al-Qaida figure 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.
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.
U.S.-led coalition and NATO-led forces in Afghanistan could not confirm al-Libi's death.
The U.S. military is currently now allowed to carry out attacks in Pakistan. 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 in trying to ferret out al-Qaida and other militant groups active in the tribal regions along 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 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 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.