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Unilateral Strike Called a Model For U.S. Operations in Pakistan

Yet some of the initial clues that led to the Libi strike were decidedly low-tech, according to an account supplied by four officials briefed on the operation. The CIA declined to comment about the strike and neither confirmed nor denied its involvement.

Hours before the attack, multiple sources said, the CIA was alerted to a convoy of vehicles that bore all the signatures of al-Qaeda officers on the move. Local residents -- who two sources said were not connected to the Pakistani army or intelligence service -- began monitoring the cluster of vehicles as it passed through North Waziristan, a rugged, largely lawless province that borders Afghanistan.

Eventually the local sources determined that the convoy carried up to seven al-Qaeda operatives and one individual who appeared to be of high rank. Asked how the local support had been arranged, a U.S. official familiar with the episode said, "All it takes is bags of cash."

Kamran Bokhari, director of Middle East analysis for Strategic Forecasting, a private intelligence group, said the informants could have been recruits from the Afghanistan side of the border, where the U.S. military operates freely.

"People in this region don't recognize the border, which is very porous," Bokhari said. "It is very likely that our people were in contact with intelligence sources who frequent both sides and could provide some kind of targeting information."

Precisely what U.S. officials knew about the "high-value target" in the al-Qaeda convoy is unclear. Libi, a 41-year-old al-Qaeda commander who had slowly climbed to the No. 5 spot on the CIA's most wanted list, was a hulking figure who stood 6 feet 4 inches tall. He spoke Libyan-accented Arabic and learned to be cautious after narrowly escaping a previous CIA strike. U.S. intelligence officials say he directed several deadly attacks, including a bombing at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan last year that killed 23 people.

Alerted to the suspicious convoy, the CIA used a variety of surveillance techniques to follow its progression through Mir Ali, North Waziristan's second-largest town, and to a walled compound in a village on the town's outskirts.

The stopping place itself was an indication that these were important men: The compound was the home of Abdus Sattar, 45, a local Taliban commander and an associate of Baitullah Mehsud, the man accused by both the CIA and Pakistan of plotting the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on Dec. 27.

With all signs pointing to a unique target, CIA officials ordered the launch of a pilotless MQ-1B Predator aircraft, one of three kept at a secret base that the Pakistani government has allowed to be stationed inside the country. Launches from that base do not require government permission, officials said.

During the early hours of Jan. 29, the slow-moving, 27-foot-long plane circled the village before vectoring in to lock its camera sights on Sattar's compound. Watching intently were CIA and Air Force operators who controlled the aircraft's movements from an operations center at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.

On orders from CIA officials in McLean, the operators in Nevada released the Predator's two AGM-114 Hellfire missiles -- 100-pound, rocket-propelled munitions tipped with a high-explosive warhead. The missiles tore into the compound's main building and an adjoining guesthouse where the al-Qaeda officers were believed to be staying.

Even when viewed from computer monitors thousands of miles away, the missiles' impact was stunning. The buildings were destroyed, and as many as 13 inhabitants were killed, U.S. officials said. The pictures captured after the attack were "not pretty," said one knowledgeable source.

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