Blast in Pakistan Kills Al Qaeda Commander

By Craig Whitlock and Kamran Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 4, 2005

BERLIN, Dec. 3 -- The killing of an al Qaeda commander in a U.S.-led operation in a remote corner of Pakistan marks an advance in the struggle to locate and eliminate the network's leadership, which has managed to replenish its ranks after suffering key losses in recent years, counterterrorism officials and experts said Saturday.

Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, said that Hamza Rabia, a top operational planner for al Qaeda, was killed Thursday in an explosion in a tribal area along the border with Afghanistan. Although there were conflicting reports about the details of Rabia's death, Pakistani intelligence sources said U.S. operatives killed him and four others with a missile fired by an unmanned Predator drone.

Pakistani and U.S. officials described Rabia as a major figure in al Qaeda's murky hierarchy and said he would have been responsible for plotting large-scale attacks against U.S. or European targets. At the same time, however, his rapid rise in the network shows how al Qaeda has been able to regenerate after similar setbacks in the past.

Intelligence officials said Rabia, an Egyptian, had replaced Abu Faraj Libbi, another al Qaeda leader who was captured in Pakistan in May. Libbi had taken over the role held by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States who was also caught in Pakistan, in March 2003.

"It's a success story, but al Qaeda has turned into a multi-headed hydra: you chop off one head and another head takes its place," said Magnus Ranstorp, a specialist on al Qaeda at the Swedish National Defense College in Stockholm. "It's a good thing they got him, but I'm sure there are others in the wings who are ready to play a similar role."

Despite their success in tracking down Rabia, there is no indication that U.S. or Pakistani forces have come closer to locating their biggest targets: al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, who are still believed to be hiding in the region.

The Bush administration had no public comment on Rabia's death. In the past, the administration has publicly praised Pakistan as a partner in the fight against terrorism. But U.S. officials have become increasingly frustrated with what they see as limited cooperation from the Pakistani military and intelligence services in the hunt for bin Laden.

In June, CIA Director Porter J. Goss said he had "an excellent idea" where bin Laden was hiding but lamented that the al Qaeda leader had taken advantage of "sanctuaries in sovereign states" beyond American reach. Although Goss did not single out the Pakistani government as the problem, U.S. and European officials said bin Laden had almost certainly taken refuge in the semi-autonomous tribal areas near the Afghan border.

Musharraf has recently acknowledged that he is not eager for bin Laden to be caught in his country, where he is seen as a hero to many and is probably more popular than Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 bloodless military coup. "One would prefer that he's captured somewhere outside Pakistan, by some other people," he said in an October interview with Time magazine.

Counterterrorism officials and analysts said Pakistan serves not just as a hiding place but as an effective base of operations for al Qaeda and other Islamic radical networks, giving them the ability to plan or carry out attacks around the world.

British investigators have found that some of the suicide attackers responsible for the July 7 subway and bus bombings in London had spent time in Pakistan before the attacks. U.S. officials have also complained that Taliban forces fighting the U.S. military in Afghanistan are able to regroup and find fresh recruits across the border in Pakistan.

"The real point here is that Musharraf is not making any dent in the issue that matters -- which is that the extremists are still operating rather freely in Pakistan and feel as comfortable there as ever," said M.J. Gohel, chief executive of the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a London research institute that specializes in security issues in South Asia. "What you need is to completely eradicate and eliminate the entire extremist infrastructure, but nothing has been done there. What has been done is the capture of individuals now and then to please Washington."

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