- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 31, 2008

A senior al Qaeda leader responsible for numerous attacks on American troops in Afghanistan and elsewhere was killed several days ago in Pakistan in a missile attack that an Islamist Web site blamed on the U.S.

Abu Laith al-Libi, a known top tier commander of al-Qaeda’s combat operations in the region and No. 12 on the U.S. most-wanted list, was killed in his compound in a village about nearly 3 miles outside Mir Ali in North Waziristan. An Islamist Web site first reported al-Libi’s death, which it blamed on the U.S., saying he had been “martyred” but not how he was killed. The site did not say who might succeed him.

“We congratulate the Islamic nation for the martyrdom of the sheik, the lion, Abu Laith al-Libi,” said a banner which appeared in a section of the Web site.

Although U.S. officials were coy about taking credit for the strike, one intelligence official told The Washington Times on condition of anonymity that the attack succeeded because it used the Global Hawk Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, a new type of drone that makes less noise than its predecessor, to launch Hellfire missiles.

The older Predator unmanned planes “were too loud and many times could be heard” before reaching its intended destination, whether for spying or firing, the intelligence official said.

“We would hear (al Qaeda) over radio chatter saying ‘the lawnmower’ is coming,” the intelligence official said. “And before we could reach (the terrorists) they would be gone.”

According to the intelligence source, Department of Defense Special Forces teams known as “Sensitive Site Exploitation Teams” are sent in directly after an attack to “gather intelligence and body parts for DNA records and identification.”

“If we’re lucky there will be computers, phones and other items that can lead us to more information,” the intelligence official said.

The attack left approximately 12 suspected al Qaeda and Taliban members dead. One intelligence official in Pakistan, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that the bodies of those killed were badly mangled by the force of the explosion and it was difficult to identify them.

But another source, a senior Western official with knowledge of the incident, told The Washington Times that “there is no reason to doubt the reports that al-Libi is dead” and called his demise a serious setback for Islamist terror.

“His primary focus was combat and paramilitary in Afghanistan, including other areas throughout region. He is someone who has been involved in extremist circles for many years and his death will deprive al-Qaeda of a significant planner and combat operations leader. This is a real blow to al-Qaeda,” he said.

Reports of al-Libi’s presence in North Waziristan had surfaced during the past several weeks and his apparent location discovered during this past week.

The intelligence official said operations like the one that killed al-Libi takes “serious preparation” both to find and hit the target and sometimes it’s “a crap shoot.”

U.S. operations near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border are politically sensitive matters, and Pentagon officials yesterday displayed their usual caution on public statements, noting only that early overseas reports of events are often inaccurate.

The CIA is reported to have taken the lead in the operation against al-Libi. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said only that he did not “have anything definitive” to say.

Pakistan government and military officials said they did not know who fired the missile. Al-Libi’s death was only acknowledged several days after the attack mainly to protect the integrity of the area for investigators.

U.S. officials said last week that al-Libi had been expected to release a public propaganda statement soon. Al-Libi’s most recent public statement was posted on a jihadist Internet site Nov. 1 and exhorted Muslims to join calls to wage holy war and explaining that the “rewards of the afterlife far outweigh the fear of death in this world,” according to a U.S. government translation.

“It is now time for battle, destruction, devastation, and massacres using all means possible,” al Libi was quoted as saying in the 5,000-word statement.

Al-Libi, a 43-year-old Libyan national whose name means “the Libyan” in Arabic, is said to have been a charismatic leader who recruited foreign fighters into the al-Qaeda organization, according to intelligence officials.

“He was known to recruit foreign fighters and operatives,” the western official said. “He has a long history of Jihadist activities and he is in some ways was representative in uniting Islamic extremists from around the world. In a battlefield way, al-Libi was emblematic of that.”

He is suspected of masterminding the February 2007 bombing that killed 23 people at the U.S. base at Bagram during a visit by Vice President Dick Cheney. He was also suspected by U.S. officials of being behind two attempts to assassinate President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan. He was charged with leading al-Qaeda operations in Pakistan’s Paktia province and had extensive knowledge in suicide missions with extensive casualties.

Retired Maj. Gen. Tim Haake, who spent 36 years in the Special Forces and is familiar with the region, said “al-Libi is last in a long line of operation commanders his position in al Qaeda made him vulnerable to discovery.”

“He was coordinating strategy, communicating and meeting with battlefield commanders and that puts him at risk,” Gen. Haake said. “I believe he is the fourth coordinating al Qaeda commander killed like this. This is quite an accomplishment for the U.S.”

“These guys have no real reluctance to becoming the next jihadist,” Gen. Haake said. “One of the things they’re good at is breeding talent to take over.”

Bill Gertz contributed to this report.

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