An al Qaeda figure killed last week by a missile from a CIA-operated unmanned aerial drone had been under surveillance for more than a week by U.S. intelligence and military personnel working along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, a U.S. official and two counterterrorism experts said yesterday.
The U.S. team was hoping Haitham al-Yemeni would lead them to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, said two counterterrorism experts, both former senior U.S. intelligence officials with knowledge of events surrounding the attack.
With the U.S. capture of senior al Qaeda leader Abu Faraj al-Libbi, above, CIA officials targeted Haitham al-Yemeni for killing rather than risk his going into hiding.
But after Pakistani authorities early this month captured another al Qaeda leader, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, CIA officials became concerned that al-Yemeni would go into hiding and decided to try to kill him instead, said the counterterrrorism experts. "We had been working hard to see what he would do," said one expert, referring to al-Yemeni.
Al-Yemeni's importance in the al Qaeda organization could not be learned yesterday. He is not listed by that name in either the FBI or Pakistani "Most Wanted" list, but the active surveillance of him suggests his importance.
The CIA declined comment. Pakistan's information minister denied that any such incident, which was first reported by ABC News, even happened. "No such incident took place near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border," Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told the Associated Press yesterday.
The sources said the Predator drone, operated from a secret base hundreds of miles from the target, located and fired on al-Yemeni late Saturday night in Toorikhel, Pakistan, a suburb of Mirali in the province of North Waziristan.
In an article dated Sunday, May 8, the Dawn newspaper in Pakistan, whose correspondents operate in the tribal areas where the hunt for bin Laden has been most intense, reported that two people had been killed Saturday night by a car bomb. The newspaper, quoting Pakistani officials, said the car was destroyed and one of the victims mutilated beyond recognition. It identified the second victim as Samiullah Khan.
The CIA and U.S. military Special Operations forces have been operating inside Pakistan for more than two years with the knowledge of Pakistani authorities. But the U.S. presence is highly controversial with the largely Muslim Pakistani public, which is generally sympathetic to bin Laden and al Qaeda. For that reason, Pakistani officials routinely play down U.S.-Pakistani cooperation.
The Predator and other unmanned aerial vehicles have become some of the most successful new weapons for killing small groups of people or individuals in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Washington Post reported in February that the administration also has been flying surveillance drones over Iran for nearly a year to gather intelligence on the country's nuclear weapons program and air defenses. The drones were based in military facilities in Iraq.
Al-Yemeni's death is one of only a handful of known incidents in which the CIA has fired the remote-controlled, missile-equipped Predator to kill an al Qaeda member. In November 2002, the CIA used a Predator fitted with a five-foot-long Hellfire missile to kill a senior al Qaeda leader, Abu Ali al-Harithi, as he was riding in a car in the Yemeni desert. Also killed with Harithi, who was suspected of masterminding the October 2000 attack on the destroyer USS Cole, was a naturalized U.S. citizen, Kamal Derwish.
Derwish, it was determined later, was part of the Lackawanna, N.Y., group of Yemeni men who admitted to training in al Qaeda camps.
The CIA is permitted to operate the lethal Predator under presidential authority promulgated after the Sept. 11 attacks. Shortly after the attacks, Bush approved a "presidential finding" that allowed the CIA to write a set of highly classified rules describing which individuals could be killed by CIA officers. Such killings were defined as self-defense in a global war against al Qaeda terrorists.
The rules have been vetted by the White House, CIA and State Department lawyers. They allow CIA counterterrorism officials in the field to decide much more quickly when to fire, according to former intelligence officials involved in developing the rules.
The Predator drone's primary mission has been to supply real-time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. But it has proved highly successful as a battlefield weapon as well.
According to previously reported Pentagon documents, over the next five years the Air Force plans to purchase 24 Predators and 35 Predator Bs, which will be armed with as many as 3,000 pounds of precision-guided bombs or missiles, and sensors to locate and strike moving targets on the ground.
"Some of our greatest successes against al Qaeda have been through the use of the Predator, both in terms of recognizing targets and actual strikes," said Roger Cressey, a former Clinton administration counterterrorism official. "It's the area where the CIA has done an extremely good job."