By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 9, 2009
A New Year's Day CIA strike in northern Pakistan killed two top al-Qaeda members long sought by the United States, including the man believed to be behind September's deadly suicide bombing at a Marriott hotel in the Pakistani capital, U.S. counterterrorism officials confirmed yesterday.
Agency officials ascertained this week that Usama al-Kini, a Kenyan national who was described as al-Qaeda's chief of operations in Pakistan, was killed in the Jan. 1 missile strike, along with his lieutenant, identified as Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan, the sources said. Both men were associated with a string of suicide attacks in Pakistan in recent months and also allegedly helped plan the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa.
Kini, who had been pursued by U.S. law enforcement agencies on two continents for a decade, was the eighth senior al-Qaeda leader killed in clandestine CIA strikes since July, the officials said. He and Swedan were ranked among the 23 most-wanted terrorists by the FBI, with a bounty offering of $5 million for their capture.
The CIA declined to comment on the strike, citing the extreme secrecy of its operations along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where al-Qaeda is believed to be based. However, a U.S. counterterrorism official confirmed that the two died in a CIA strike on a building that was being used for explosives training.
"They died preparing new acts of terror," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the agency's actions are secret.
A second counterterrorism official said that Kini is among the 10 highest-ranking terrorists the CIA has ever killed or captured.
Terrorism experts have cautioned that al-Qaeda has shown surprising resilience, quickly replacing leaders who are killed or captured. Still, there have been few occasions since 2001 when the group lost so many top operatives so quickly. Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and Georgetown University professor, said the agency's tactics appear to be cutting dramatically into al-Qaeda's top ranks with strikes deep into a lawless border region that insurgents long regarded as a sanctuary.
"It is a stunning testament of the accuracy of intelligence that the United States is obtaining," Hoffman said. "Either we have built up an impressive network of sources that facilitates such precision targeting, or the Pakistani authorities are cooperating big-time."
Added the U.S. counterterrorism official: "The continuous loss of senior talent has to have a pretty serious effect."
Details of the attack were sketchy, but counterterrorism officials privy to classified reports said the men were killed by a 100-pound Hellfire missile fired by an unmanned aircraft operated by the CIA.
The strike took place at a site variously described as a safe house or former girls' school near the town of Karikot in South Waziristan, a region in the rugged autonomous tribal areas of northern Pakistan that has long been a haven for al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters.
South Waziristan has been targeted frequently by Predator drones in recent months as part of a controversial and increasingly lethal campaign to destabilize the terrorist group and kill key operatives. The attacks, occurring about once every three days, have drawn protests from Pakistan's government but praise from top intelligence officials who say the strategy is forcing al-Qaeda into the open. CIA Director Michael V. Hayden, alluding to the strategy in a November speech, said the United States had "taken the fight to the enemy."
The counterterrorism official who described the Jan. 1 attack said, "Clearly, al-Qaeda's safe haven in Pakistan isn't nearly as safe as it used to be."
There was no immediate reaction from Pakistan, which in recent months has indicated a willingness to tolerate such attacks within its borders, as long as they target foreign operatives and do not involve the use of ground troops.
Kini, whose given name was Fahid Mohammed Ally Msalam, had trained terrorists in Africa in the 1990s and served as a central planner of the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, U.S. officials said. He was indicted by a federal grand jury in connection with those attacks and has been on the FBI's list of the most-wanted terrorists ever since.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he became al-Qaeda's emir of Afghanistan's Zabul province, and he later shifted among Afghanistan, Pakistan and East Africa, planning suicide missions, training operatives and raising money, U.S. officials said.
He became al-Qaeda's operations director for Pakistan in 2007 and was responsible for at least seven suicide attacks, the sources said. These included a failed assassination attempt in October 2007 on Benazir Bhutto, the former Pakistani prime minister who was later killed, and the Sept. 16 car-bombing of Islamabad's Marriott Hotel. That attack killed 53 people.
Among other notable al-Qaeda officials killed in similar fashion in recent months were Rashid Rauf, the mastermind of the foiled 2006 trans-Atlantic airline plot, and Abu Khabab al-Masri, al-Qaeda's premier explosives expert and leading figure in the terrorist group's efforts to create biological and chemical weapons.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.