ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – A missile from a U.S. Predator drone struck a suspected terrorist safehouse in Pakistan and killed a top al-Qaida commander believed responsible for a brazen bomb attack during a visit last year by Vice President Dick Cheney to Afghanistan, a U.S. official said Thursday.
The strike that killed Abu Laith al-Libi was conducted Monday night or early Tuesday, said the official, who would neither confirm nor deny that the U.S. carried it out. The attack was against a facility in Pakistan’s north Waziristan region, the lawless tribal area bordering Afghanistan. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss the strike publicly.
The killing of such a major al-Qaida figure is likely to embarrass Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, who has repeatedly said he would not sanction U.S. military action against al-Qaida members believed to be regrouping in the wild borderlands near Afghanistan.
An estimated 12 people were killed in the strike, including Arabs, Turkeman from central Asia and local Taliban members, according to an intelligence official in the area who spoke on condition of anonymity. He said the bodies of those killed were badly mangled by the force of the explosion, and it was difficult to identify them.
The U.S. says al-Libi – whose name means “the Libyan” in Arabic – was likely behind the February 2007 bombing at the U.S. base at Bagram in Afghanistan during a visit by Cheney. The attack killed 23 people but Cheney was deep inside the sprawling base and was not hurt.
The bombing added to the impression that Western forces and the shaky government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai are vulnerable to assault by Taliban and al-Qaida militants.
Terrorism experts said al-Libi’s death was a significant setback for al-Qaida because of his extensive ties to the Taliban, but they said the terror network would likely regroup and replace him.
“Al-Libi has been waging jihad for more than 10 years, and it will be a blow to both al-Qaida and the Taliban, but not in a way that will lead to the downfall of those organizations,” said Eric Rosenbach, terror expert and executive director of the Center for International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
Pakistani officials denied any knowledge of al-Libi’s death. A Web site that frequently carries announcements from militant groups said al-Libi had been “martyred with a group of his brothers in the land of Muslim Pakistan” but gave no further details.
Residents near the Pakistani town of Mir Ali in North Waziristan said they could hear U.S. Predator drones flying in the area shortly before the explosion, which destroyed the compound.
The Pakistani newspaper Dawn said the victims were buried in a local cemetery.
Rumors spread Thursday in the border area that al-Libi or his deputy died in the missile strike. But Pakistan’s Interior Ministry spokesman, Javed Iqbal Cheema, insisted authorities had “no information” indicating al-Libi was dead.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he did not “have anything definitive” to say on reports of al-Libi’s death.
The Libyan-born al-Libi was among the most high-profile figures in al-Qaida after its leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman Al-Zawahri.
“Al-Libi’s death is a significant blow to al-Qaida the organization because he is one of the few people left in the organization who has a historical track record,” said Farhana Ali, terror expert at the RAND corporation.