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Combating Extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan | Full Coverage

Top al-Qaeda planner apparently killed in Pakistan

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By Joby Warrick and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 12, 2009

An apparent U.S. missile strike along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan is believed to have killed a top al-Qaeda operations planner this week, U.S. counterterrorism officials said Friday. If confirmed, this would be the second deadly attack against a senior terrorist leader this fall.

Saleh al-Somali was one of two Arab men thought to have been killed when a pair of missiles tore into their car Tuesday near the town of Miran Shah in North Waziristan province, according to U.S. sources and Pakistani officials in the region. Local authorities said the missiles were fired by an unmanned aircraft of the type operated by the CIA inside Pakistan's lawless tribal belt.

"They were driving in a white car, heading toward the Afghan border, when the car was hit," said an official with Pakistan's civilian intelligence agency, speaking by phone from Miran Shah. The official said suspected local militants rushed to the spot and quickly confiscated what remained of the "totally demolished bodies."

Local authorities were unable to verify the victims' identities, but two U.S. counterterrorism officials cited unspecified evidence that Somali was among the dead. Somali was described as a senior al-Qaeda military planner who ran the terrorist group's operations outside the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

"He was engaged in plotting throughout the world," said one senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitive nature of U.S. airstrikes inside Pakistani territory. "Given his central role, this probably included plotting attacks against the United States and Europe. He took strategic guidance from al-Qaeda's top leadership and translated it into operational blueprints for prospective terrorist attacks."

The second U.S. official said Somali had risen quickly through al-Qaeda's ranks and was well-connected with other extremist groups in the region.

"He may not be a household name to some Americans, but that in no way diminishes the threat he posed to us and our allies," the second official said.

If his death is confirmed, Somali would be the second senior al-Qaeda or Taliban leader killed since September, when a similar strike killed Najmuddin Jalolov, the leader of a militant faction in the tribal belt, and three other top operatives.

The tempo of strikes by CIA-run drones has declined since the summer, from an average of about six operations per month to two, according to a tally by the Long War Journal, a Web site managed by a nonprofit group. The decline may be due to improved tactics by terrorist groups, which have taken steps to limit their vulnerability while also ruthlessly killing suspected informants, the site said.

Special correspondent Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.


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